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Summaries of RCT Grants

Randomized controlled trial of a cost-of-living grant to community college students, aimed at increasing college retention and completion

This project is a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to evaluate a cost-of-living grant for low-income community college students, with the goal of increasing college retention and completion.

Grant Recipient: University of Pennsylvania 

Term: 2022 – 2026

Principal Investigators: Dr. Sade Bonilla, Dr. Veronica Minaya-Lazarte

Funding Request: $360,537

Abstract: This project is a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to evaluate a cost-of-living grant for low-income community college students, with the goal of increasing college retention and completion. The cost-of-living pilot program will provide community college students who have demonstrated financial need with an additional cost-of-living stipend of $3,500 per semester for two years, i.e., up to $14,000 total.

The evidence that large grants can increase college persistence and completion is somewhat mixed. An RCT of the Susan Thompson Buffet Foundation Scholarship program, which provides ~$7,500 per year (on average), found that the scholarships increased degree completion: six years after random assignment, 68% of the control group had earned a 2‑year and/​or 4‑year degree vs. 73% of the treatment group. However, an RCT of the Wisconsin Scholars Grant program, which provides low-income community college students with ~$1,800 per year, found no clear pattern of effects. Thus, additional rigorous evidence on the effect of large grants is warranted, especially for community college students.

Further, the Pell Grant, which is the largest source of federal aid for low-income students, has not been rigorously evaluated using a randomized controlled trial. Nevertheless, Congress recently approved a 6.2% increase in the maximum Pell Grant award, and the program continues to have bipartisan support. Advocates have called for the maximum Pell Grant award to be doubled to address the fact that the current maximum of $6,895 covers roughly half the expenses Pell Grants covered when they were first introduced in 1973. This project will rigorously answer the policy-relevant question of whether doubling Pell can meaningfully improve degree completion rates for community college students. 

Researchers will recruit a sample of approximately 600 students from two community colleges in Massachusetts that serve a majority of students of color. Students will be randomly assigned to either a treatment group that receives the cost-of-living stipend or a control group that will not. The study’s primary outcome will be degree completion measured over a period of three years after random assignment. The study will also determine the program’s impact on continued college enrollment, credit accumulation, and transfer (e.g., to a four year institution). Outcomes will be measured using administrative data from the colleges and the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC).

The study’s pre-specified analysis plan is posted here.

Grants

Arnold Ventures funds projects to understand problems and identify policy solutions.

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