Wisconsin Longitudinal Study Shows Merits of Need-Based Aid

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As new data come in showing that college debt has surpassed credit card debt for the first time, the national conversation about college-going has heated up. Though countless studies show that a college degree is still the best insurance in an increasingly competitive marketplace, the pundits are battling it out. Is college for everyone? Is a degree really worth the cost? If we want to increase educational attainment, should financial aid target need or reward high achievement? The financial-aid question is especially critical when dollars are tight. But a new update to the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study adds even more evidence to the already powerful case for prioritizing need-based aid: It shows that providing aid to students with demonstrated need increases the likelihood recipients will complete 12 or more credits in their second and third semesters, as well as the likelihood they will return for a second year. These positive results were strongest for students attending the least-selective institutions.

The longitudinal study evaluates the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars, a program launched in fall 2008 that provides need-based aid to Pell grantees attending Wisconsin’s public colleges and universities, although this update pertains only to students at the 13 four-year institutions. Like Pell, the Wisconsin Scholars Grant has income, enrollment and academic performance requirements for students to maintain eligibility. But unlike Pell, this program intends specifically to increase college credit accrual and degree attainment. The thinking is that reducing students’ need for paid work increases the time they have available to concentrate on schooling.

Three questions were of primary importance to the researchers as they studied the program’s effectiveness: (1) Are credit completion and grade point average impacted in the short term? (2) Are college persistence and eventual degree completion impacted in the long term? (3) Which types of students most benefit from the program?

To carry out their work, the research team from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research compared “the college outcomes of students who were eligible to receive the Grant and were offered it to the students who were eligible but were not offered it.” Implementation research on the 2008 cohort revealed that start-up dynamics — low student and institutional understanding and trust — may have contributed to “the lack of [overall] results for the 2008 cohort.” However, the opportunity to analyze data over time for WSG students showed something different:

  • Completion of a full-time, 12-credit load increased
  • Retention to the second year of college increased
  • Students at less-selective institutions demonstrated improved full-time credit completion and annual enrollment rates
  • Student debt burden was reduced by about $1,500 per year (for the 2008 cohort).

Despite these promising results, analysis of the oldest cohort suggests “that the program’s impacts faded after the second year,” a phenomenon partly attributable to the loss of the grant as Pell eligibility terminated. In response, the Fund de-linked program eligibility from the requirement for ongoing Pell eligibility. A more advanced iteration of the program will roll out this fall providing the opportunity to delve more deeply into all these issues.

—Anneliese M. Bruner