A report published near the end of 2012 by MDRC — an organization that examines social policy in the U.S. — took a look at the effects that a scholarship may have on a student’s ability to succeed at college. In its examination of a handful of schools across the nation, which it calls a Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration (PBSD), MDRC has identified some elements key to the students’ success in pursuit of a college degree.
The MDRC program continues, but its interim report, “Can Scholarships Alone Help Students Succeed? Lessons from Two New York City Community Colleges,” hints at the potential of the research. The larger study uses performance based scholarships to entice students to high levels of academic achievement, and ultimately, success. Performance -based scholarships, as the study defines them, are largely just what they sound like: students are awarded scholarships based on financial need, but must maintain a certain level of performance, and achieve specific academic benchmarks, in order to continue qualifying for the aid. I thought this study was particularly interesting because it focused on a group of students who were outside what is largely thought of as a traditional, or “normal” age range for students.
The study group consisted of low-income students who attend community colleges. Rather than a more typical age range of 18-22, the participants in the MDRC study were ages 22 through 35. The interim report focused on the 1,502 student participants at the two New York City community colleges in the study.
The students were randomly put into one of three different groups. The students in the first group were offered performance-based scholarships of up to $2,600 for two semesters. The second group of participants was offered up to $3,900 in scholarship money, tied to performance, to cover two regular-term semesters, plus one summer session. The final group was the control group. They were not offered scholarship funds, but were otherwise eligible for financial aid. This gave the researchers a baseline group against which to compare the performance basis of the scholarships.
All subjects were also required to enroll in pre-college, or remedial, coursework in order to qualify for college level courses and were eligible to receive Pell Grants. The researchers looked at the number of credits each subject attempted, how many they completed and tracked the participants’ cumulative grade point average.
The groups that were selected to receive the scholarship funds received their funding — in addition to any existing financial aid — at the beginning, middle and end of the semester. Payment, however, was contingent on their continued enrollment and the grades the students earned. According to the study’s authors, the contingency-based financial aid had the potential for creating in students “an increased effort toward studies, a reduced level of financial stress, and an increased confidence on the part of students in their ability to succeed.” At least, that’s what they thought.
As it turns out, tying financial aid to academic success had no statistically significant effect on students’ continued enrollment in college or success in school. While the schoalrship recipients ended up with a slight edge over the control group in the variables measured by the study, the margin was so small that, in real terms, no difference existed. In the two New York community colleges covered in the study, 78.1% of the scholarship students were still enrolled, as opposed to 76.6% of the students in the control group at the end of the two-semester program. Looking at continued enrollment after the program ended, 61.9% of the scholarship recipients remained enrolled, while 60.7% of control group students were still in school one semester after the program ended. Enrollment declined even further — in both groups — two semesters beyond the study’s end: 51.2% of scholarship recipients remained enrolled versus 49.5% of control group members.
The study is incomplete, but the interim report raises some interesting questions, particularly about the role of financial access to education. The study seems to indicate that access to funds for school — whether tied to performance or not — is not a key element in the academic success of lower-income students. This flies in the face of much conventional wisdom about financial aid. So, does this mean that financial aid, rather than being tied to actual performance or financial need or both, should be made contingent upon some other measure. Maybe a some sort of inventory that measures the likelihood of collegiate success.
If nothing else, this may keep some people from digging themselves into a hole of student loan debt for college courses that they couldn’t complete. Either way, I’m curious to see what the study concludes once it is complete.