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A new grant by Arnold Ventures will study the impact of student support programs on graduation rates. Researchers will look into how services such as tailored coaching, financial support, and connecting students to public benefits impact college completion rates. Here, New York University students prepare for the start of their walk across the stage at Yankee Stadium. (Drew Angerer/​Getty Images)

Arnold Ventures today announced $3.9 million in funding for research into the impact of student services, such as tailored advising and financial support, on graduation rates. 

The U.S. has made strides in expanding access to higher education, especially for historically underserved students. In the past decade, more people have entered college, but completion rates have remained flat: Only a third of students who enroll in associate’s programs earn a degree in three years or less. Both two- and four-year institutions are experimenting with different support programs to boost graduation, and researchers are seeking to study the interventions to help schools better understand the factors that affect student outcomes. 

The nine grants to eight separate research institutions, including the University of Illinois and Columbia University, will fund studies of programs ranging from data-driven approaches to coaching to methods to help students deal with food insecurity. Through these grants, Arnold Ventures is seeking to identify exceptional programs that promote lasting success. 

Legislators need to focus on completion in addition to access and affordability,” said Arnold Ventures President and CEO Kelli Rhee. We hope these grants will show how greater investment in research — coupled with an effort to scale programs that prove to be successful — could help more students earn a degree.”

The initiative launches as lawmakers, researchers, and policy experts are calling for the passage of an act that would provide more money for the evaluation of higher education programs. The Fund for Innovation and Success in Higher Education (FINISH) Act — introduced by U.S. Sens. Todd Young, R‑Ind., Michael Bennet, D‑Colo., and Tim Scott, R‑S.C., and U.S. Reps. Ben McAdams, D‑Utah, and Ron Wright, R‑Texas — would expand funding to rigorously test many interventions, then replicate and scale the most promising practices. This tiered” funding approach would address a foundational problem in social policy — that there are surprisingly few programs in education and other fields shown to produce the hoped-for improvements in participants’ lives. 

Arnold Ventures has invested nearly $42 million to expand access to data about student outcomes; implement stronger and consistent quality standards for institutions; and scale programs shown to improve student outcome and graduation. This includes more than $11.3 million to support randomized controlled trials of promising interventions in higher education. Arnold Ventures’ investments are guided by a belief in evidence-based policymaking and a desire to increase the effectiveness of social spending through the use of rigorous evidence about what works. Read more about our previous investments in higher education here.

Grant announced today

  • Supporting nursing students: A randomized controlled trial (RCT), conducted by Economic Mobility Corp, of the Capital IDEA program at Austin Community College, which provides support to low-income adults pursuing associate degrees in nursing. 
  • Addressing hunger: A pilot RCT, conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, of Swipe Out Hunger, a campus hunger relief program now operating at 52 campuses nationwide. 
  • Connecting students to public services: A pilot RCT, conducted by Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, of the Benefits Hub program, which provides on-campus access to government public benefits. 
  • Tailored coaching: An RCT, conducted by Research for Action, of the Completion Coaching program, which provides financial support and coaching to students. 
  • Tackling challenges in STEM: A feasibility study, conducted by MDRC, of Growth Sector’s STEM Core, which seeks to help underprepared students improve their skills in science, math, and other courses. 
  • Academic advising: An RCT, conducted by Ithaka S+R, of the Monitoring Advising Analytics to Promote Success program, which is a data-driven student advising program. 
  • Securing student loans: Two RCTs, conducted by the University of Illinois, of the provision of federal loan eligibility information to college students to increase college retention and academic performance. 
  • Getting students back to the classroom: An RCT, conducted by the University of Missouri and Vanderbilt University, of InsideTrack’s coaching and mentoring program aimed at increasing college re-enrollment and completion for recent dropouts.
  • Offering financial support: An RCT, conducted by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, of the Federal Work Study program, which provides financial aid to students through subsidized jobs.