Issue Focus

Behind the Study: Voices from MDRC’s Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration in New Mexico

| Oscar Cerna

“Being part of VISTA was a stress-reliever — it made me feel better about studying, about going to class, and about doing things outside of class that I need to do.”

— A performance-based scholarship recipient at the University of New Mexico

There is little doubt that the ability to pay for college is a source of a major concern for low-income college students. Many enroll with little or no knowledge of how to navigate the confusing and intimidating world of financial aid — often relying on work to pay the bills, while going to school only part time. A new performance-based scholarship and advising program at the University of New Mexico (UNM) seeks to ease the financial burdens of students while incentivizing full-time enrollment and academic achievement.

Between the Fall 2008 and Spring 2011 semesters, more than 500 low-income UNM freshmen were given the opportunity to participate in the Vision Inspired Scholarship through Academic Achievement (VISTA) program. VISTA offered students up to $1,000 per semester during their first two years at UNM, along with regular academic advising sessions. The funds were paid directly to the students in three installments over the course of each semester. Students were required to maintain a 2.0 grade point average and enroll in at least 15 credit hours per semester while in the program. Early findings from MDRC showed that, after one year, students attempted and earned more credits, received more financial aid dollars and in some cases reduced their loans, and registered for more credits in the third semester.

Multiple focus groups with 25 VISTA students tell the story behind these results. Most students said they relied heavily on their assigned VISTA advisors to help them learn the complex university systems for financial aid and course registration and do a better job of balancing work, education, and financial planning. Students often chose to meet with their advisors more than the required three times a semester to discuss their scholarships, receive help with registering for classes and choosing a major, and learn more about campus services. The individualized attention they received resonated with students. As one student explained, “The fact that we needed to take 15 credits every semester pushed me, but I didn’t want to disappoint my VISTA advisor. I wanted to repay him for helping to push me and giving me support.”

Having one consistent advisor seemed to make a difference, too. As one student noted, “It helped a lot going to the same advisor all the time, because they learn who we are and better understand our individual problems and concerns.” Another student quipped, “[My advisor] always knows what’s going on. I don’t feel like I have to retell my life story every time.” Many students mentioned that they maintained an ongoing relationship with their VISTA advisors even after the program ended, as they were still the campus representatives they most trusted.

Receiving the scholarship allowed many to worry less about their finances, enabling them to focus more on their school work. When compared to other types of financial aid, most students agreed that the VISTA award benefited them more, simply because the payments were spread across three points in the semester. While the first payment helped with tuition and books, many students said they liked receiving payments to help cover rent, transportation, and meals during the middle and at the end of each semester. Focus group participants also said that the scholarship helped motivate them academically, a dynamic particularly well-expressed by one student: “VISTA keeps me from getting lazy. In the back of my mind I knew that I’d be losing money if I didn’t pass my classes.” They said that the requirement to take 15 credit hours per semester pushed them to take more courses than they would normally enroll in, which in turn helped them to stay on track to graduate on time.

VISTA is one of nine scholarship programs in six states (including Arizona, California, Florida, Ohio, and New York) being evaluated in MDRC’s Performance-Based Scholarship (PBS) demonstration. Early findings from the study in New Mexico were released in August 2011. A final report on New Mexico with longer-term findings is slated for publication in 2014.