New Report Outlines Best Practices for Emergency Grant Programs Aimed at Improving College Graduation and Persistence Rates

Researchers Outline Five Recommendations for Improving Practice in the Field of Emergency Grant Aid

In a new report commissioned by Scholarship America, researchers at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab used data from surveys and interviews conducted with emergency grant aid program administrators around the country to gauge how they might be best implemented to assist colleges in keeping students enrolled and on track toward postsecondary attainment.

The report—Investing in Student Completion: Overcoming Financial Barriers to Retention Through Small-Dollar Grants and Emergency Aid Programs—found at least 100 emergency grant aid programs in operation across the country, some with support from larger organizations, including Scholarship America’s Dreamkeepers program, which provides students with both financial assistance to get them through their emergency, as well as access to additional resources and student services. All emergency grant programs surveyed seek to help students overcome unforeseen financial need—such as an unexpected car repair, a medical problem or higher-than-expected textbook costs—and keep them enrolled.

“Nationally, more than half of all students who drop out of college do so for financial reasons—and many times students are forced to drop out due to unexpected costs of a few hundred dollars or less,” said Robert C. Ballard, president and CEO of Scholarship America. “Sometimes a little bit of money really does go a long way, especially when it comes to keeping college students enrolled in classes.”

An efficiently operated emergency grant program may be an especially promising strategy to help students not only stay in school, but also thrive. Alleviating threats to their well-being, especially food and housing insecurity, is especially important.

The report outlines five key recommendations to improve practice in the field of emergency grant aid:

  • Establish and communicate clear criteria for program eligibility, while also providing flexibility for determinations in unusual circumstances.
  • Collect and analyze program data to help guide effective practice.
  • Coordinate financial aid and emergency aid when it makes sense, and avoid doing so when it does not help students.
  • Equip emergency aid program administrators with information about other forms of support for students.
  • Evaluate the impact of emergency aid programs to improve performance and buttress funding.

The contemporary financial aid system may not be nimble enough to respond to the nature or urgency of student financial emergencies. As colleges and universities implement programs to provide students with quick infusions of money through emergency grants more information is needed about their prevalence, practices or effectiveness at helping students stay in school.

“A rigorous evaluation of a well-implemented emergency aid program is a critical next step for the field. This new report lays the groundwork for that effort by helping illuminate the current range of practices in the field,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Practitioners appear to agree that effective emergency aid programs strike a balance between the use of clear and consistent criteria, and some flexibility to adapt to unusual situations.”

This initial analysis of practices among emergency grant programs is a first step in broader efforts needed to make college more affordable and to provide students the support services needed for postsecondary attainment. Sharing and implementing best practices in the design of these programs, improving upon existing practices, and supplementing the traditional financial aid system with more small-dollar grants will ensure more students persist in college.


About Scholarship America
For nearly 60 years, Scholarship America has worked directly with students, parents, colleges, businesses and communities to empower people to fulfill their college dreams. As the nation’s largest provider of private scholarships, having distributed over $3.1 billion to more than 2 million students, Scholarship America is now working to further engage the private sector to support programs and policies that advance equity in postsecondary education and help students overcome barriers to access, persistence and attainment. More information is available at and by following @scholamerica.

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Bobby Mathews

Posted in Emergency Financial Assistance, Policy, Scholarship America Media Releases.