College Success

More than dollars for scholars: The benefit of combining financial aid with counseling support

The Dell Scholars Program may serve as an important model for improving the college success of first-generation college-goers from low-income backgrounds. Some college success efforts focus on addressing financial barriers to college success; others provide students with outreach and counseling to navigate college life.  The Dell Scholars Program provides support on multiple domains, and this support is yielding substantial impacts on scholars’ college success. Specifically, when we compare similar students, we find that those selected as scholars are nearly 25 percent more likely to earn their bachelor’s degrees four or six years after high school graduation.

To get to college, students must navigate a series of incremental steps, well beyond simply being prepared academically. Taking the SATs, applying to schools that are a good fit, accessing financial aid, getting to campus—the list goes on.  Students – and particularly would-be first-generation college goers – face many potential pitfalls on the path to college. Researchers, practitioners and policymakers have developed a deep understanding of the barriers students can face and the programmatic and policy solutions to support students over them.[i]

Yet, there is more to be done, as getting to college is only the first step. Once there, students must engage in higher-level academics, manage their own time in the context of a far less rigid schedule, and navigate often complex bureaucracies of postsecondary institutions. These added responsibilities arise when students typically have less access to support and guidance than in high school. This constellation of challenges may help to explain the widening socioeconomic gap in college completion.[ii] Among a recent cohort of students, 60 percent of those from the highest-income backgrounds earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 14 percent of their lowest-income peers.  Such gaps are nearly as large when comparing students with similar academic profiles.[iii]

New evidence indicates that the Dell Scholars Program may serve as an important model for how to improve these patterns. Some efforts to improve outcomes for low-income or first-generation students focus on financial barriers to college success by providing students with scholarship funds. Other efforts focus on additional outreach and counseling to assist students in navigating the complicated academic, bureaucratic and social terrain of college. Although both types of efforts hold promise, programs that integrate both financial assistance and counseling may have particularly pronounced and positive impacts.

The Dell Scholars Program has a unique programmatic model that focuses on supporting students to earn a bachelor’s degree both by addressing financial constraints through the provision of generous scholarship funds of up to $20,000 and by providing, in the program’s own words, “…ongoing support and assistance to address all of the emotional, lifestyle, and financial challenges that may prevent…scholars from completing college.” In collaboration with Dell Scholars Program staff, we have investigated, using quasi-experimental evaluation strategies, how being selected as a Dell Scholar impacts students’ college success. While our full research paper provides far more detail, we offer the key punch line here: the opportunity to participate as a Dell Scholar dramatically improves students’ college success. Specifically, when we compare similar students, we find that those selected as scholars are nearly 25 percent more likely to earn their bachelor’s degrees four or six years after high school graduation.

Since 2004, the Dell Scholars program has selected and supported over 3,000 scholars. Nearly all Dell Scholars are from low-income backgrounds. Most are the first in their family to go to college. Importantly, students selected as Dell Scholars are not necessarily the highest performers from their high schools, but all scholars are recognized and selected for their grit, postsecondary potential and ambition. Overcoming the historic and widening socioeconomic gaps in college completion will require substantial societal investment. The Dell Scholars Program demonstrates that investing resources in a combination of financial assistance and counseling support can generate pronounced improvements in degree completion for hard-working, socioeconomically-disadvantaged students.

Lindsay Page is an assistant professor of education and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

Benjamin Castleman is an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia.

Gumilang Sahadewo is a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Pittsburgh.

[i] For a recent review, see Page, L. C., & Scott-Clayton, J. (2015). Improving College Access in the United States: Barriers and Policy Responses (No. w21781). National Bureau of Economic Research.

[ii] Bailey, M.J. & S.M. Dynarski. (2011). Gains and gaps: Changing inequality in U.S. college entry and completion. In G.J. Duncan and R.J. Murnane (eds.), Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances. Russell Sage: New York, New York.

[iii] Kena, G., Musu-Gillette, L., Robinson, J., Wang, X., Rathbun, A., Zhang, J., Wilkinson-Flicker, S., Barmer, A., and Dunlop Velez, E. (2015). The Condition of Education 2015 (NCES 2015-144). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC. Retrieved August, 3, 2015 from