Does Financial Aid Impact College Student Engagement?

Evidence from the Gates Millennium Scholars Program

Abstract

While increasing numbers of students have gained access to higher education during the last several decades, postsecondary persistence and academic success remain serious concerns with only about half of college entrants completing degrees. Given concerns about affordability and resources, policymakers and administrators wonder how financial aid impacts student outcomes, particularly among low-income students. We investigate this question looking at a range of outcomes beyond just academic performance by focusing on the Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) Program, a generous grant program that provided a renewable scholarship to talented undergraduate students of color with financial need. We isolate the impact of financial aid on academic and community engagement by comparing the outcomes of GMS recipients to similar non-recipients who were likely to have comparably-high levels of motivation and potential for success. With information about the application process, we use similar applicants not selected for the award as a comparison group. We then employ a Regression Discontinuity research design to provide causal estimates of the effects of GMS. The results suggest that GMS recipients were more likely to engage with peers on school work outside of class. Additionally, GMS recipients were much more likely to participate in community service activities and marginally more likely to participate in other extracurricular activities than their non-GMS peers.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Cohort 4 data is unavailable due to limitations in the data reporting in the fall of 2003.

  2. 2.

    Cohort 1 information was not available as all but 98 of the population of 2043 non-recipients in cohort 1 were disqualified due to Pell Grant Status.

  3. 3.

    Among those in Cohort 1, the first follow-up survey (administered in the spring of the third year) yielded a response from 76.0 % of recipients and 64.2 % of non-recipients. For Cohort 2, 83.1 % of recipients and 58.6 % of non-recipients completed the first follow-up survey. For Cohort 3, 89.7 % of recipients responded in the baseline of the survey (administered in the spring of the first year), and 74.9 % of non-recipients responded. Among those in Cohort 5, 89 % of recipients responded in the baseline survey, and 73 % of non-recipients responded.

  4. 4.

    Missing ACT or SAT scores caused us to drop approximately 150 observations from cohort 1, 100 observations from cohort 2, 90 observations from cohort 3, and 100 observations from cohort 5. If a student took both exams, we use the higher of the two scores. Scores were converted into percentiles using the test score national percentiles from the student's senior year of high school.

  5. 5.

    Results available upon request.

  6. 6.

    After eliminating those students not eligible for the GMS award, the non-recipient category for students in Cohort 2 was significantly smaller than for the other cohorts. This was due to incomplete applications caused by the relative newness of the award in the second year, coupled with missing non-cognitive scores for many of the remaining non-recipients. Further inspection of the covariates, however, revealed that these students were similar to the non-recipients of other cohorts, just fewer in number.

  7. 7.

    While we did examine thresholds of achievement separately by racial group, we find that the variation in the minimum non-cognitive and SAT/ACT scores needed to be a serious candidate for the GMS award was small enough to justify using one non-cognitive and SAT/ACT threshold across all races within a cohort.

  8. 8.

    The interaction of Score and Race does not substantively change the results, and thus, we show only the coefficients for Score and Race in our regression tables.

  9. 9.

    Results from these sensitivity checks are available upon request.

  10. 10.

    This variable was not collected during the baseline survey (during the freshman year). GPAs ranged from 1 to 5.0, with only 42 students in our sample reporting GPAs greater than a 4.0. We included GPAs from 4.0 to 5.0 in the data, as some high schools report grades on a 5.0 scale.

  11. 11.

    The possible responses were: 6 = Three or more times a week; 5 = Two or 3 times a week; 4 = Once a week; 3 = Two or 3 times a month; 2 = Once a month; or 1 = Less than once a month."

  12. 12.

    For ease of interpretation, we coded these categorical variables into binary outcomes, with 1 = once a week or more and 0 = less than once a week.

  13. 13.

    The possible responses were: 5 = Very often; 4 = Often; 3 = Sometimes; 2 = Seldom; 1 = Never. This question was asked of all students in the study, regardless of whether students lived in a residence hall or not. Therefore, this question will inevitably capture some students reporting no involvement with their residence hall because, by definition, they did not reside there. However, descriptive reports from NORC indicate that a majority of students (over 60 %) lived in residence halls during their first year.

  14. 14.

    Possible responses were: 5 = Very often; 4 = Often; 3 = Sometimes; 2 = Seldom; 1 = Never.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Institute for Higher Education Policy for their support and the data. We also thank Melissa Bert for early help with the data and comments, and participants at the Student Financial Aid Research Network (SFARN) and Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) conferences who provided useful insights on the mechanisms and methodologies in this paper. The views contained herein are not necessarily those of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. All errors, omissions, and conclusions are our own.

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Correspondence to Angela Boatman.

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Boatman, A., Long, B.T. Does Financial Aid Impact College Student Engagement?. Res High Educ 57, 653–681 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-015-9402-y

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Keywords

  • Financial aid
  • Student engagement
  • College success
  • Community service