Bridging the College Completion Gap with Comprehensive Systems of Support

Differences in college completion by socioeconomic status have widened over time. For all students, succeeding in college involves managing difficult tasks and balancing competing demands. However, low-income and first-generation college-goers face unique challenges. They are more likely to enroll part-time—balancing substantial work hours with school—and to attend resource-strapped, less-selective institutions. These students can face ongoing economic hurdles that leave even their basic needs of housing and food unmet. And, they often lack access to the social and informational resources that their more resourced peers call upon when navigating the complex academic, financial, and social contexts of college. This combination of circumstances hinders college persistence and completion, especially in the absence of ongoing guidance and support.

Policymakers and postsecondary institutions have implemented a diverse range of responses aiming to close the college completion gap. So what is working to promote college success for low-income and first-generation students? Based on a review of rigorous impact evaluations on college success interventions, we find that interventions providing sustained supports, both financial and non-financial, have the largest impacts on long-run student outcomes such as persistence and degree attainment. Our recent study of the Dell Scholars Program, forthcoming in the Journal of Human Resources, demonstrates the promising effects of comprehensive support programs. [1]

The Dell Scholars Program: A promising comprehensive intervention

The Dell Scholars Program, an initiative of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, continuously supports low-income and primarily first-generation students from their transition into college until they earn a college degree. Students apply to the program during their high school senior year. To be eligible, students must have earned a minimum high school GPA of 2.4; be low-income as indicated by Pell grant eligibility; and plan to enroll in a four-year college. The final stage of selection involves scoring student applications according to weighted scoring criteria that consider three factors: academic achievement, disadvantage, and responsibility. Applicants are ranked according to their final score and the 300 top-ranked students are selected. For the years that we examine, the typical Dell Scholar has SAT / ACT performance at about the 60th percentile and comes from a household with an annual income of about $20,000 (2016$). Seven in ten students is Black or Hispanic, three-quarters are first-generation college-goers, and nearly all qualified for free- or reduced-price meals in high school. Consistent with other national trends, approximately 70 percent of the Dell Scholars are female. The Dell Scholars attend a wide range of colleges and universities throughout the US, with six in ten attending institutions in the bottom two categories of selectivity or that are unrated by the Barron’s Profile of American Colleges.

The Dell Scholars Program includes a generous scholarship. Unlike last-dollar aid programs that only cover the gap between a student’s financial aid package and the cost of attendance, the Dell Scholars Program allocates $20,000 to each selected student. The typical recipient uses several thousand dollars of this scholarship each year to cover costs of college attendance. Nevertheless, allocation is flexible and responsive to student needs. For example, if students have a “full-ride” financial aid package from their institution, they may use their program award to pay back student loans or cover graduate school costs. Further, students do not lose eligibility for the funds if they fall behind academically.

Recognizing that barriers to college success can go beyond the financial, the Dell Scholars Program has developed a proactive and data-informed program model that supports students to overcome academic and situational hurdles as they arise. This programmatic model is motivated by a theory of action that, in order to meaningfully increase the share of lower-income students who earn a college degree, it is necessary both to address the financial constraints students face and to provide ongoing support for the academic, cultural, and other challenges that students experience during their college careers. This is notable given that the program currently supports approximately 1,600 students with a lean team of four full-time staff members.

A key component of their model is the use of an early warning and case management system. Through a web-based tool, they collect college financing, academic progress, and situational data from students at designated points during the academic year. With these data, the program team assesses each student’s progress and risk for attrition. If students are identified as potentially not on track, the team then immediately reaches out to the student to provide guidance and support. This sophisticated system allows the Dell Scholars Program staff to proactively identify and respond to signals of students’ challenges as early as possible.

How does this system of integrated supports affect college outcomes? To answer this question, we first capitalize on the application process and compare applicants above and below the selection threshold. We couple this with additional methods for deriving conclusion regarding the Dell Scholars overall. We find that that the program improves students’ year-over-year college persistence, academic achievement, and bachelor’s degree attainment. Dell Scholars are 6-10 percentage points more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within four years, and 9-13 percentage points more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to similarly qualified non-scholar counterparts. These impacts represent improvements on the order of 20 to 25 percent over baseline levels of four- and six-year bachelor’s attainment overall.

Furthermore, Dell Scholars earn college credits at a faster pace, maintain a higher grade point average, and are less likely to risk losing federal financial aid due to poor academic performance. They are also less likely to borrow for college and less likely to work a substantial number of hours. In short, the program’s integrated supports significantly improve the postsecondary experiences and outcomes of the students served. This is especially so for those attending less selective institutions.

Taking stock of comprehensive support programs

Our findings align with those from other programs that provide sustained, holistic student supports. For example, the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, which provides comprehensive support for at-risk community college students, doubled associate’s degree completion rates. The Carolina Covenant, which provides financial and ongoing support services to low-income students enrolled in the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, increased on-time degree completion for participating students by approximately 8 percentage points. Finally, encouraging findings are emerging on initiatives that combine the financial benefits of place-based promise programs with coaching and academic support services. The Detroit Promise Path, for example, has sizable impacts on full-time enrollment for students in the first year of college.

The emergence of evidence on comprehensive support programs comes at a critical time.  Low-income and first-generation students continue to grapple with a complex and interrelated set of barriers on their path to degree attainment. Notably, the positive effects of comprehensive programs on college success are largest in less selective institutions, which have absorbed most of the growing enrollment of low-income college students. Thus, the ongoing and multifaceted resources offered by comprehensive support programs may be especially meaningful for students enrolled in resource-strapped colleges where individualized support services are more scarce.

The Dell approach, through which a small program team tracks and supports many geographically disbursed students, offers a technology-enhanced program model for consideration. The ongoing development of web-based advising platforms presents new opportunities to respond efficiently to the challenges that low-income and first-generation students face. Imagine if we coupled all advising and financial aid programs with robust student tracking and support systems. Such innovative features have the potential to improve the efficacy of the substantial investments already being made to increase college success for low-income and first-generation college students.

— Stacy S. Kehoe and Lindsay C. Page

Stacy S. Kehoe is a Senior Advisor in the Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest and Center for Research, Evaluation, and Analysis. Her overarching objective is to effectively use data and evidence to inform the work of institutions that interact with students and families who have limited financial and social resources.

Lindsay C. Page is an assistant professor of research methodology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education and a research scientist at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center. Her work focuses on quantitative methods and their application to questions regarding the effectiveness of educational policies and programs across the pre-school to postsecondary spectrum.


1. The authors received research funding from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation to support the evaluation of the Dell Scholars program, though the authors retained full editorial control over publication of their results.

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