Sixty ISU seniors receive first completion grants

Among Saturday's 4,000-plus graduating seniors will be a handful who made it to the finish line thanks to some very fortunate timing. In November, they were among the first 60 Iowa State students to receive completion grants that erased some debt on their university bill and allowed them to register for their final semester of classes.

The completion grants program is an initiative for the 11 public universities in the University Innovation Alliance, who share best practices for producing more university graduates from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the non-profit Great Lakes Higher Education Corp. totaling $4 million launched the grants program last fall; Iowa State's share of that seed money is about $168,000 over three years. The goal is to build up matching funds so each university can sustain its own program when the seed money runs out.

Director of student financial aid Roberta Johnson, who administers the program, said Iowa State awarded $31,794 to the 60 students, an average of $530 per student. In its initial semester, the grants did their job: 54 of the students enrolled for spring semester and three more graduated in December.

"We know what kind of a difference these grants make," Johnson said. "For students who've exhausted all other possibilities and are between a rock and a hard place, this is it -- $500 for them was huge."

During the 2016-17 academic year, Iowa State awarded about $104 million in institutional grants and scholarships, Johnson said. By comparison, completion grants are very small -- but the impact is immediate, she noted.

ISU completion grant recipients: The process of finding them (Fall 2017)



Senior status


Enrolled and within two semesters of graduation


GPA of at least 2.0


Federal Pell Grant recipient, accepted all financial aid offered this year


Past-due balance of $1,100 or less


*Standard across UIA universities

Once it had identified an eligible pool based on the alliance criteria, Johnson said Iowa State injected one more requirement: a financial counseling session with a staff member in the Student Loan Education Office. Of 98 students who were offered awards in November, 38 either paid their bill using other means or failed to complete the financial aid session.

Completion grants are a one-time offer. Johnson noted the semesters look similar in a student's annual financial aid package, so a funding gap in the fall likely will show up in the spring, too. "We want to educate them so they can make wise choices with their funds. We needed to have a conversation about how they'd cover a shortfall in the spring because they wouldn't get the grant again."

Round 2

Last week, the financial aid office completed the task of identifying seniors eligible for spring completion grants to help them return for fall semester. Ninety-six awards totaling $41,443 were offered, an average of about $432 per award. Students who complete a financial counseling session will receive their awards.

The process received a boost from a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences emergency fund provided by alumni wanting to directly help financially strapped students. Assistant dean Kent Kerby said he awarded a little less than half of his funds, or about $20,000, to an estimated 30 LAS students -- some of who are seniors. The awards ranged from $300 to $1,500, he said. All of the students are enrolled for fall.

Johnson said she completed the UIA awards once some LAS seniors on her list received at least part of what they needed from the college.

Matching gift

One source for local matching funds came from an unanticipated partner -- the athletics department, which will contribute $1 million to the program over five years, starting July 1. Johnson said Iowa State faculty athletics representative Tim Day asked her for suggestions on what could help ISU students. The athletics department wanted to give back to ISU students in gratitude for their tremendous fan support. Day took Johnson's suggestion for completion grant assistance to athletics director Jamie Pollard, who liked its high-impact potential.

"Jamie didn't put too many strings on how we structure this. He said 'Just keep kids in school,'" Johnson said. "With $1 million, we're looking at how, over time, we might be able to back this train up to help juniors and sophomores, too?"

"His timing couldn't have been more perfect, with this scale project from UIA underway," noted Gralon Johnson, UIA fellow assigned to Iowa State.

He said Iowa State will track data about who the completion grant recipients are, particularly if they are first-generation, low-income or students of color. A January campus symposium on closing the achievement gap between white and underrepresented students revealed that it wouldn't take large student numbers to make a difference.