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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

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All the Way to Graduation

SDSU Pell Grant students buck the national trend to achieve success.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

At colleges and universities across the United States, federal Pell Grants help economically disadvantaged students finance their undergraduate education. Students become eligible for the program when their estimated family contribution to college expenses falls below $5,486 annually.

The Pell Grant program has a 46-year history, but critics are now questioning its effectiveness. Only half of recipients graduate in six years, the national average time to undergraduate degree completion.
The numbers at San Diego State University tell a different story. 

The six-year graduation rate for SDSU’s full-time freshman Pell Grant recipients was 71 percent in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available. That is nearly identical to the six-year graduation rate of 75 percent for all SDSU full-time freshmen, placing SDSU within an exclusive group of universities that has narrowed the “achievement gap” between white students and students of color. 

There is no single explanation for SDSU’s success. It’s built on a host of advising, mentoring, tutoring and wellness programs tailored specifically for economically disadvantaged students, most of whom are the first in their families to attend college. Beyond these targeted initiatives is a university-wide philosophy of raising expectations across campus.

“Administrators from universities across the country ask for our ‘magic solution,’” said Eric Rivera, vice president for Student Affairs at SDSU. “There is no one program. Our success is the result of years of effort to change the university culture and years of investment in programs that benefit all students. Graduation rates have increased for every racial, ethnic and economic group at San Diego State, so it’s not surprising that Pell Grant students benefit in kind.” 

Good directions

Pell Grant recipient Eric Chavez sees the university experience as a journey. Reaching your destination is lot easier with good directions. Chavez transferred to SDSU in fall 2017 and enrolled in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), designed to improve academic outcomes for low-income and educationally disadvantaged students.

“Students like me are resilient; otherwise we wouldn’t be here be here at SDSU,” said Chavez, a social work major. “Some of us grew up in poverty or in foster homes. How would we know the road to a degree if no one has ever pointed us in the right direction? SDSU lays it all out. With the resources you’re given, you have to try hard to fail.”

Most Pell Grant recipients are commuter students, who are the likeliest to run into academic trouble as freshmen. In 2010, SDSU began “taking the temperature” of these students periodically as their academic careers progressed. In-depth surveys revealed that many commuter students felt alone and unable to find a place of belonging on campus.
To support them, SDSU created a Commuter Resource Center and a comprehensive Commuter Life program that emphasizes building relationships with faculty, staff and other students, choosing a mentor and taking part in leadership and service-learning activities. The center is strategically located within the space reserved for student organizations, increasing the odds that commuter students will join one of them.

Additionally, SDSU promotes opportunities such as internships and study abroad, which also boost graduation rates. 

“It has made a big difference,” said Randy Timm, dean of students and director of Student Life and Leadership. “Looking at the numbers alone, you notice our Pell Grant recipients graduate at the same rate as our overall student population. That appears unremarkable, but in fact Pell Grant students start out on an unequal footing, and they finish neck-and-neck.”

Paying the bills

In addition to academic and emotional assistance, Pell Grant students also receive financial support from SDSU. The Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships revised its award policies in 2014-15 to reinforce SDSU’s goal of helping students graduate in less than six years—the national average. 

Nearly 65 percent of students holding federal work-study positions on campus are commuters. Not only do these jobs pay the bills, they also help students build relationships and strengthen their connections to SDSU.
Tara Block is on track to graduate in four years. The public administration major, a Pell Grant recipient, received internships with JusticeCorps and the San Diego County Probation Office and served as vice president and president of the EOP Student Advisory Board. 

Block said resources such as the Black Resource Center, the Undocumented Resource Area and other spaces designed for diverse communities signal SDSU’s commitment to underrepresented students, who may have Pell Grants. 

“Students come in and know that our culture …is appreciated and acknowledged and that people feel it’s important for us to have spaces to dialogue about the issues that affect our communities,” she said. “Beyond the symbolic, there is programming that relates to the issues diverse communities face. And there is a staff that really wants to see students thrive and…go all the way to graduation.”