Issue Focus

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

| Herbert Collado, Alissa Gardenhire

“I got out of high school. I had two babies. I supported myself with waitressing, and I just got fed up with it. That doesn’t make enough money for the things that I wanted for myself and for my kids. So I decided to come back to school to get a more stable job…to be able to have money…and the things that we wanted.”

— A performance-based scholarship recipient at a community college in Ohio

The experience of this single mother was common among 22 Ohio students interviewed in MDRC’s national Performance-Based Scholarship (PBS) Demonstration. In Ohio, low-income parents at three community colleges were offered financial incentives ranging from $900 to $1,800 over an academic year for meeting academic performance benchmarks.

Students interviewed by MDRC expressed a desire to use education to secure employment that would move them beyond a “paycheck-to-paycheck” existence. Most Ohio PBS participants were single mothers — often caring for their own young children as well as others. One mother said, “I have four kids…one of my own and three nieces and nephews out of the foster care system…I am extremely busy.” For most, parenting was their highest priority; education was second and work third.

Those students with jobs worked in fields like child care, home health care, or in what remained of the manufacturing sector. Some had gone back to college after large local manufacturers had closed during the downturn in the economy. “I got laid off from Ford about two years ago and decided to come back to school,” said one.

Overall, these students reported that they were motivated to overcome whatever challenges they faced, whether in the classroom or at home, in order to earn the performance-based scholarship. As one woman put it, “Knowing I’m going to get a check that I can spend on anything I want to at the end of the semester…that’s like I’m doing my homework every day. I don’t care if you guys are going to the [most fun] event I ever heard of in my life. I need that money at the end of the semester and I’m getting at least a C.”

Students interviewed in focus groups gave examples of their determination to succeed —coming back to college after devastating injuries or studying into the wee hours of the morning after putting their children to bed. Some arranged for extra child care to get more time to study, while others reached out to faculty for extra credit or tutoring.

While some students dreamed of splurging with their scholarship dollars, few were able to use the awards at the end of the semester on anything other than paying bills. Consistently, they expressed worry about the high costs of college, books, and loan debt.

Encouragingly, early findings from the study of the Ohio colleges show that the scholarship program reduced educational debt, while increasing the number of credits attempted and earned, as well as full-time enrollment. A final report with longer-term findings from the Ohio program will be released in late 2013.

The PBS Demonstration is testing different versions of the performance-based scholarship model in Arizona, California, Florida, New Mexico, and New York City. Early results from New York City were released in May. Results from the other sites will be published in 2011 and 2012.