Effects of Postsecondary Student Grant Aid Programs: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Each year considerable resources are allocated to help students pay the costs of attending college. The College Board reports that, in 2019-20, undergraduate students received more than $184 billion in financial assistance from programs sponsored by the federal government, state governments, colleges and universities, philanthropic organizations, and other entities. About 60 percent of this assistance was in the form of grants (Ma, Pender & Libassi, 2020).

The findings from the review on college financial aid indicated that students who received aid, compared to students who did not, were more likely to enroll in college, earn more college credits, continue toward their degree, and graduate from college.
Detailed findings

Researchers have examined the effects of individual grant aid programs on particular college student outcomes. Although studies of individual programs have value, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers also benefit from knowing the conclusions that may be drawn across studies.

Summary estimates of the effects of grants with different characteristics on different college student outcomes can help to inform decisions about resource allocation and program design. By organizing and estimating pooled effects across studies using a systematic review and meta-analytic process, the current project addresses this need. 

Project Details

The research team conducted a meta-analysis to estimate the effects of different types of college financial aid programs on college student outcomes from initial enrollment to post-college labor market outcomes.

The first stage of the project involved completion of a systematic review of the research literature on financial aid published between January 1, 2002 and January 15, 2020, which identified evaluation studies that meet a pre-established set of criteria for inclusion in the meta-analysis.

The second stage involved coding each identified study for the type of financial aid program evaluated and its key features, the effect sizes associated with the aid program in relation to each of five postsecondary outcomes, and the main design and methodological attributes of the study. The final stage involved synthesis of the findings from prior evaluation studies using advanced meta-analysis modeling techniques.

Key Findings

  • Grants had positive effects on college enrollment, credit accumulation, persistence, and degree completion. Our translated effect estimates suggest that grants increased the enrollment rate among prospective college students by 2.8 percentage points, increased persistence rates by 2 percentage points, and increased completion rates by 0.4 percentage points (LaSota, Polanin, Perna, Rodgers, & Austin, under review).
  • LaSota and colleagues (under review) found that the positive effects of grant aid are generally comparable for studies of students at two-year and four-year institutions. The one exception was for effects on credit accumulation, which found that grant aid had a larger positive effect on credit accumulation for samples of students at two-year institutions and samples of students at two-year and four-year institutions than for students at four-year institutions.
  • Moderator analyses showed that the positive effects of grants did not vary based on eligibility criteria, grant program type, early commitment or residence requirements, presence of non-financial supports, award duration, average annual award amount, or type of costs covered by the grant (LaSota, Polanin, Perna, Rodgers, & Austin, under review).
  • Although differences in effects by average annual award amount were not statistically significant, a review of the pattern of coefficients suggests that the magnitude of the positive effects of grants increases with the average annual amount of the grant aid award. This pattern held for all outcome domains except post-college labor market outcomes (where we identified only a small number of few studies) (LaSota, Polanin, Perna, Rodgers, & Austin, under review).
  • Based on a systematic review of research on the effects of losing grant aid, LaSota and colleagues (2021) found negative effects on student outcomes when grant aid is reduced or eliminated. While results vary, this general conclusion applies when grant aid is reduced or eliminated from programs that differ in scope (federal and state), eligibility requirements (merit and need), and award amounts.

At the project’s outset, Dr. Polanin was employed by Development Services Group, Inc. (DSG), and therefore served as the project’s prime awardee; AIR served as a partner. Robin LaSota, Ph.D., Senior Researcher at DSG, served as the project’s principal investigator. Dr. Laura Perna, Centennial Presidential Professor of Education and vice provost for faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Polanin served as co-principal investigators.