College completion rates in the United States are not what they should be. It is an important national conversation. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the percentage of students who began college and completed a degree within six years is approximately 53%. Just over half of those students who begin college finish – and that number is decreasing. It’s a growing problem and a growing national conversation.
Although we all need to be concerned about this number, and we all should part of that national conversation, if it is your student who can’t finish, knowing that there are many others also struggling isn’t much consolation. So although the big conversations and educational reforms are important, sometimes it is the small, personal actions that can make a difference.
More and more colleges and universities are recognizing that for many students, the barriers to completion- which may seem insurmountable at the time – are actually individual stumbling blocks that can be overcome with some help. This is especially true for many first-generation and low-income students. So schools are stepping in to help.
What are microgrants?
Many schools have now instituted programs which offer small grants or loans to help students through the temporary and unexpected pitfalls and obstacles that may be standing in their way. These programs go by many names – microgrants, emergency grants, gap grants, completion grants, retention grants, etc. Programs look different and target different students at each institution, but the principle is the same: help struggling students to stay in school by helping them over a financial hurdle.
Many schools have found that by helping financially struggling students through a difficult time, they have increased their retention rate. Students are able to stay in school and complete their degree once they get over whatever stumbling block was in their way. Some schools are able to fund their microgrants by realigning portions of their budgets. Other schools have received funding from alumni or from larger organizations such as the Lumina Foundation, Kresge Foundation, or Walmart.
Grants are generally small – microgrants in the world of grantmaking. A few schools may offer grants as high as $2000, but most grants are under $1000 with the average being closer to $500. Yes, amounts that small can make the difference between a student dropping out of school or finishing.
Some schools target students early in their college career, but many schools aim their sights on students within one or two terms of completing their education. Schools often try to identify bottlenecks, often use an alert system, are often proactive rather than waiting for students to ask for help, and try to deliver help in a timely way.
Can grants this small make a difference?
There is currently no way to track the success of microgrants nationally. However, schools with these programs report surprising success. Grants can cover sudden hardship such as illness, day care emergencies, medical bills, books, money to pay for food or utilities, car repair, laptop repair or loan, clothes for interviews, or even the cost of a bus pass. Grants sometimes come with a requirement for financial counseling or meeting with an advisor. Recipients often realize not only monetary, but also psychological benefits such as reduced stress and more focus on studies.
Microgrants or emergency grants work because sometimes a little bit goes a long way and because most programs are high-touch and do not work in isolation as stand-alone programs, but as part of a more holistic way of looking at students and their needs. According to the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, “some institutions have embraced a culture that prioritizes student success and empowers students to take ownership of their education.”
Isn’t that what we all want for our students?