How to Help Texas College Students Complete Their Degrees

This commentary was originally published by Community College Daily.

You might be surprised to learn that only 26 percent of Texas students complete their two-year degree within three years. That’s below the national average of 34 percent. At four-year institutions, graduation rates are better, but more than one-third of their students still drop out of college without a degree.

Lawmakers at both national and local levels have been concerned about these low graduation rates for years. Then the pandemic hit. College enrollment rates and graduation rates cratered. While students faced a myriad of issues over the last three years, one of the main barriers was financial. The cost of college-going has become increasingly steep in recent decades, and the pandemic made many students’ economic situations too precarious to stay in school.

That’s one of the reasons why the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board developed the Texas Completion Repayment Grant Program. In the spring, summer, and fall semesters of 2022, the program provided institutions up to $250,000 to support students who dropped out of college, or who were at risk of dropping out before earning a degree, due to unpaid tuition or balances they owed their college from a previous semester. The program awarded up to $1,000 per student—a drop in the bucket compared to many colleges’ total costs of attendance but a significant sum for many students from low-income families.

How It Helps

MDRC assessed the Texas Completion Repayment Grant by conducting a student survey, interviewing students, and collecting descriptive data on student enrollment. Here’s what we learned about the need for additional financial assistance among students in Texas.

We found that 95 percent of the students who received the grant remained enrolled in college. Our study was not designed to measure the impact of this grant on student completion. But it did provide some insights into how students perceive its benefits.

We learned that traditional and nontraditional students perceived the grant differently. Students 25 years and older spoke about how the grant greatly influenced their decision to further their education as they had exhausted other forms of aid.

One adult learner said, “I’ve exhausted all the other stuff [financial aid]. Like I told you, this has been a long journey for me. So, Pell grant, I don’t have any more of that.”

On the other hand, most students ages 18-24 said that they would have found another way to finish their education whether the grant was available or not. One student said, “I would love to stay here at this university, but with it being as expensive as it is, I know any amount of money would help, any penny would really help me.”

Notably, more than half of students needed $2,500 or less to completely clear their prior financial balances and stay enrolled in college. The upside of covering balances can be enormous for students. But they also named several other factors that made it difficult to stay in college and graduate: navigating online courses, deciding between work hours and study time, health issues, caregiving responsibilities for parents and children, and a lack of on-campus support.

Part of a Holistic Approach

The most effective strategies to increase college graduation rates are multifaceted student support programs, which typically combine holistic advising, including both academic and nonacademic topics, with additional monetary support beyond financial aid. They often also include support services, such as tutoring and peer mentoring, as well as clear messaging to encourage continuous enrollment. These strategies help colleges more consistently engage students to build their connection to staff, better address their academic and non-academic needs, and keep them engaged from semester to semester, including during the summer. 

The Texas Completion Repayment Grant Program is one example of how states and colleges have supported students during difficult times. There is more to learn about how to distribute this kind of aid —for example, how to successfully focus it on students who might not otherwise finish college. Ensuring that this kind of financial aid is distributed to students who may not otherwise finish college will be important for improving college completion rates.

As we formally compare different approaches, we’ll keep learning how to distribute scarce public dollars most effectively. Texas also can build on this positive momentum by investing in comprehensive, multifaceted student support services to raise graduation rates in the long term. Implementing these strategies can help more Texas students get the degrees that they’ve started.

Document Details

Publication Type
July 2023
Novak, Lena and DeShawn Preston. 2023. “How to Help Texas College Students Complete Their Degrees.” New York: MDRC.