Examines the effects of program incentives, as indicated by graduation rates and earned credit hours among recipients of a performance-based scholarship.

“This paper presents findings on five-year graduation rates for recipients of a performance-based scholarship targeting low-income first-year students at the University of New Mexico (UNM), a medium-sized public university. The program, Vision Inspired Scholarship through Academic Achievement (VISTA), provided cash payments for four semesters to students who enrolled in at least 12 credit hours in their first semester, and in at least 15 credit hours in subsequent semesters, and who earned a grade point average (GPA) of 2.0 or higher. VISTA also provided students with enhanced academic advising. Because students were randomly assigned to the program (VISTA) or control groups, the effects of the program can be estimated by comparing outcomes over time for the two groups.

Although VISTA did not improve retention or grades, the findings show that it led to a large increase in the number of students taking 15 or more credits during the second through the fourth semesters, leading to a modest increase in average credits earned over this period. This modest advantage translated into a notable increase in the graduation rate of 5.1 percentage points after four and a half years (significant at the 5 percent level) and 4.5 percentage points after five years (an effect that just misses statistical significance at the conventional 10 percent level, with a significance level of 10.7 percent). In addition to the increased number of credit hours earned, the enhanced academic advising may have contributed to the higher graduation rate by raising awareness among VISTA students of the courses they needed to take to graduate” (p.1).

“The program and control groups consisted of 536 and 545 students, respectively. This analysis relies primarily on two sources of data: (1) the baseline survey, which included student-provided information on parental education, employment status, marital status, and primary language, and (2) registration and financial data from the institution’s administrative records. The research team also examined data from an internet survey of the second study cohort (those who entered college in 2009), fielded in the spring of the first academic year” (p. 10).

(Abstractor: Author)

Full publication title: Providing Incentives for Timely Progress Toward Earning a College Degree: Results from a Performance-Based Scholarship Experiment

Major Findings & Recommendations

“This evaluation’s findings suggest that tying additional aid to enhanced advising and a heavier course load can have notable effects on graduation rates. The combination of encouraging students to attempt 15 or more credit hours per semester and providing enhanced advising appears to have helped students make greater progress toward graduation. However, even with the program effect, graduation rates in general remain low, particularly for low-income students. Additional policies and programs are clearly needed to help students succeed” (p.25). “In the semesters following the study, several changes were made at UNM. Noting the benefits of enhanced advising for the VISTA students, the usual advising services were changed so that all students were assigned to a particular adviser, and advising centers were restructured to reduce the student-to-adviser ratio. The number of credit hours needed to graduate was also reduced from 128 to 120 for many majors, making four-year graduation realistically possible for students taking 15 credit hours per semester. Concurrently, a new tuition structure was adopted, setting full-time status at 15 credit hours per semester. The price per credit is now lower for students enrolled in 15 credit hours than students taking fewer credit hours. The findings presented here suggest that these changes should help students make more timely progress toward earning a degree” (p. 26). (Abstractor: Author and Website Staff)