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Keeping Students on Track to College Graduation

You may have encountered recently the inspiring story of Hope Chicago, an innovative college scholarship program committed to investing $1 billion in scholarships to Chicago's students and their parents over the next decade. The surprise announcements this past February in Chicago’s high schools made national news as Hope Chicago awarded 4,000 secondary students and their parents the opportunity for a debt-free college education, as well as the possibility of improved financial stability for themselves and their families for generations to come.

The cost of college is daunting for most American families. The National Center for Education Statistics reported the average tuition and fees at public 4-year institutions in 2019-20 was $9,400. Coupled with the costs of books, supplies, and room and board, the total cost of attending a public university is on average just over $25,000 per year. Given that the median earnings of workers aged 15 and over for the same time period was $41,535, it’s impossible to imagine how the average American family can pay for college. Not surprisingly, the average debt among bachelor’s degree completers is almost $30,000.

Programs like Hope Chicago remove the financial barrier of entering college. But do scholarship programs alone enable students to succeed in college and graduate? One of the few studies that considers the relationship between scholarship and graduation, by Page, Kehoe, Castleman, and Sahadewo (2017), investigated the effectiveness of the Dell Scholars Program. The research team found that there was a higher probability that students receiving scholarships would graduate (from 6 percent to 13 percent). Similarly, an evaluation of the impact of the Florida Student Access Grant (FSAG) on long-term outcomes including college persistence and degree completion rates also found effects: financial aid positively affected student persistence and credit accumulation while increasing the likelihood of students earning a bachelor’s degree (Castleman & Long, 2016).

While financial support is important, keeping students on the path to a college degree is ideally supported by multifaceted support programs, which may combine a proactive, holistic coaching or advising model with financial support, enrollment messaging, and other supports (Ratledge & Wavelet, 2021). Holistic coaching models, such as the evidence-backed

InsideTrack model (What Works Clearinghouse, 2012), are used to assess students’ lives inside and outside of school and help them overcome barriers to academic success. Coaches and mentors proactively and frequently reach out to students, maintaining engagement across the student’s time at college. Universities have also invested in sophisticated CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software to track and engage students from pre-enrollment through graduation, often employ innovative engagement strategies such as digital messaging. Financial support is essential, but it is one of several tools available to support college student success.

Shaffer Evaluation Group works with higher education clients to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions to support students on their pathways through college. We have supported community colleges and universities receiving National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education grants to implement student support programs, ranging from CRM to holistic coaching and scholarships. To learn more about how we can help your institution evaluate student support programs, please contact us at


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