Experimental Evidence on the Impacts of Need-Based Financial Aid: Longitudinal Assessment of the Wisconsin Scholars Grant

Drew M. Anderson, Katharine M. Broton, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Robert Kelchen

July 2018

College financial aid is intended to improve academic performance and college completion rates and create longer-term benefits by reducing financial stress and debt. However, very few studies clearly distinguish causal impacts of financial aid programs over an extended period of time. Building on prior evidence from a randomized experiment with the Wisconsin Scholars Grant, this study examines college completion, field of degree, and graduate school enrollment over a period of up to ten years. That longer period of observation reveals that some of the program’s initial positive effects, documented in earlier studies, faded over time. The program shortened time-to-degree among its first cohort of university students and a greater fraction earned degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, but it did not increase their overall odds of degree completion or rates of entry into graduate school. However, when additional cohorts of program participants are considered, there are some signs of improvement. For example, impacts on six-year degree completion rates trended upward for later cohorts, exhibiting a statistically significant impact for the most recent cohort examined. While the program also delivered financial aid (albeit with less purchasing power) to students at two-year colleges, positive impacts on their educational outcomes were not evident. This longitudinal assessment adds to the growing body of evidence that dollars delivered via traditional financial aid programs are exhibiting inconsistent effects when it comes to ameliorating students’ financial challenges and promoting student success.

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