Staying on Track: Early Findings from a Performance-Based Scholarship Program at the University of New Mexico

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An experimental scholarship program at the University of New Mexico that provides extra income for low-income students who keep up their grades shows early results in increasing the number of credits for which the participating students enroll.

The program, called VISTA (Vision Inspired Scholarship Through Academic Achievement), which is funded 77 percent by MDRC and 23 percent by the University of New Mexico, is one of nine scholarship programs being tested throughout the United States as part of the national Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration project of the U.S. Education Department. The demonstration is testing several different types of performance-based scholarships to determine the most promising strategies to help increase college persistence and completion among low-income students.

The scholarship provides low-income incoming freshmen with up to $1,000 in financial aid per semester for four semesters, in addition to any other financial aid they may receive. The funds are paid to a student in three installments and have the requirements that the student is enrolled full-time and has a “C” average or better. VISTA also provides students with additional academic advising, requiring that its students meet at least twice during each semester with a VISTA adviser.

Researchers used a group of 1,000 low-income students entering UNM in the fall of 2008 and the fall of 2009 whose members were randomly assigned to either the VISTA group or a control group. Students in the control group were only eligible for standard financial aid and advising. The evaluation is tracking these students’ performance in college for four years – the two years for which they are eligible for VISTA (four semesters) and then the two years after the scholarship ends.

One of the early results of the program is that, through one year, VISTA had no effects on grades or credits during the students’ first academic semester, but after that period, effects were more significant and notable.

The program encouraged students to attempt more credits. In their second semester, students in the VISTA group were significantly more likely than those in the control group to attempt 15 or more credits,  which is the minimum needed for VISTA. As a result, the VISTA students were about 9 percentage points more likely to have earned 30 or more credits by the end of their first year at school, which also increased the likelihood that they would be on track to graduate on time.

The VISTA program led to a net increase in financial aid dollars and allowed some students to reduce their reliance on loans. Students in the VISTA group received, on average, about $900 more in aid than those in the control group, and also were 6 percentage points less likely to have loans.

VISTA did not affect overall enrollment rates for the third semester, but it did result in students registering for more credits. About 78 percent of students in the study returned to UNM to register for classes for their third semester. However, the enrollment rates were similar for students in the VISTA program and students in the control group. VISTA students were, however, much more likely to have enrolled for at least 15 credits.

A final report on the outcomes of the VISTA program will be published by the MDRC in 2014.

For the full, free 53-page report click here.