Panel Paper: Can Financial Aid Increase College Access and Persistence for New and Returning Adult Students?

Saturday, November 10, 2018
Coolidge - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Adela Soliz, Vanderbilt University, Zachary Mabel, The College Board and Jason Lee, Tennessee Higher Education Commission

Though college access has increased over the past decades, college completion rates remain low, and this is particularly true for low-income students (College Board, 2013). Approximately 40 percent of college students are adults (i.e., age 25 or older) and 30 to 35 million adults in the United States, or 17 percent of all Americans 25 and older, have attended some college but have not earned a credential (Erisman & Steele, 2015; U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). Yet despite the large number of adults attending college, completion among this group is very low; fewer than one-half of students who initially enroll at age 25 or older complete college within six years of entry and fewer than one-third of returning adult students graduate nationally (Shapiro et al., 2012; 2014).

Offering targeted need-based financial aid is one strategy states can adopt to promote adult student success. However, whether financial aid is an effective tool for incentivizing adults with some college but no degree to complete their studies remains an open question. One the one hand, investments in financial aid may be particularly cost-effective for returning adult students. Thirty to forty percent of adult students report that they discontinue their studies for financial reasons (Dreckmeier and Tichman 2010; Ninon, 2013). Research also indicates that adult students may face stiffer credit constraints than younger students when borrowing to help pay for college expenses (Gichevu, Ionescu, & Simpson, 2012). On the other hand, the effect of financial aid on attainment may diminish as students get closer to completing college and the remaining cost to completion declines. For example, Mabel (2018) finds that students who exhausted their lifetime eligibility for federal Pell Grant aid accelerated their time to completion and were no less likely to graduate overall compared to Pell recipients who maintained their eligibility for aid. Decisions to persist may therefore stabilize over time and attenuate the impact of aid for returning adult students.

Tennessee Hope for Nontraditional Students (THNS) is a need-based aid award designed to increase enrollment and persistence among adult students. Students are eligible for THNS if they are 25 or older, are an entering freshman or re-enrolled after stopping out for two or more years from a postsecondary institution, are enrolled in a two-year or four-year institution in Tennessee, and have an adjusted gross family income of $36,000 or less. We make use of 8 cohorts of administrative data from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and a regression discontinuity design in which Adjusted Gross Income is the forcing variable to estimate the effect of receiving THNS on the enrollment and persistence of adult students. Our descriptive analysis suggests that over 21,000 THNS awards have been distributed over our sample years. Our findings have important implications for institutions and policy-makers designing policy to increase college enrollment and completion among new and returning adult students.