Financial aid has long been used to increase access to postsecondary education, particularly for underrepresented students. Given the size of the financial aid system and the widespread use of aid, it should also be thought of as a tool to improve academic success and postsecondary completion. Evidence suggests that using additional financial aid to increase the number of credits students take may accelerate their academic progress. There are two ways for students to increase their “enrollment intensity” (the total number of credits they take during an academic year): Increase the number of credits taken during the traditional fall and spring semesters, or enroll in school year-round and use the summer or winter intersession (or both) to earn additional credits.
The Obama administration recently released two proposals that would provide students with supplemental Pell Grant funds to encourage timely degree completion.
The On-Track Pell Bonus would provide an annual bonus of $300 to students who enroll in 15 credits each semester. Pell for Accelerated Completion would allow full-time students to earn a Pell Grant for a third semester. Some states already use financial aid dollars to encourage students to increase the number of credits they take. Minnesota, for example, provides additional aid to students who enroll in 15 credits, and Pennsylvania provides financial aid to students in the summer.
Several MDRC studies suggest that providing students with additional financial support to increase their enrollment intensity — either by increasing the number of credits earned per semester or by enrolling in courses during the summer — can lead to increased credit accumulation over time and may help them complete their degrees faster. All of these studies were conducted using a random assignment design, the highest standard of evidence for evaluation research.