This story was produced in collaboration with the Hechinger Report.
Every semester, thousands of students drop out of college because they are a few hundred dollars short of being able to pay their bills. Many are only a few credits shy of graduation. Most are already working one or more jobs to keep up with their college costs.
At many schools, students cannot register for the next semester if they owe money—and not just for tuition, but for lab fees, parking or library fines, and room and board expenses.
At the University of North Carolina–Charlotte, administrators fretted about seeing so many people drop out when they were nearing completion of a degree. The associate provost, Tina McEntire, says the university loses about 640 students each semester—and that 70 percent of them cite financial problems as their reason for leaving. In response, administrators began offering completion grants—usually around $1,000—to help students over the finish line. They're called Gold Rush grants.
Heather Oakes, a single mother of three daughters, was among the recipients. To support her family, she says, "I took out every bit of student loan they'd allow me, and I went back to school." When she fell short near the end of her progress toward a degree in water engineering, the mini-grant helped keep her in school. As important as the money, she says, was the emotional support—knowing that someone believed in her ability to complete the job and graduate.
For Carimar Batista, her senior year was spent working two jobs, keeping up with academics, and being involved with student activities. "I was constantly stressed," she says. She feared she'd have to drop out, but a Gold Rush grant came to her rescue. The university says 95 percent of Gold Rush recipients have graduated or remained enrolled on track toward graduation.
At Georgia State University, one of the pioneers of this idea, the average grant is about $900, and graduation rates, especially for low-income students, have improved substantially. The effectiveness of completion grants is being studied by the University Innovation Alliance, an 11-member consortium of public universities (including Georgia State) that strive to share best practices with each other, and by the United States Department of Education.