Last fall, Cheyenne Chandler arrived in Lexington from Atlanta, Ga., eager to get started at the University of Kentucky. She already knew she wanted to major in agriculture and biotech as a path to medical school.
Then, her family had a financial stumble and Chandler discovered she was about $1,800 short on her UK bills, which blocked her from registering for classes or staying in her dorm.
“I was going to have to move out because I wasn’t registered,” she recalled.
She called the financial aid office, who referred her to a new group, Financial Wellness. They, in turn, connected Chandler with the UK LEADS program (Leveraging Economic Affordability for Developing Success), which gave her a grant of $1,800 to allow her to stay in school.
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Without the grant program, “I would have had to go back home and I wouldn’t be a sophomore right now,” Chandler said recently. “It’s a really big blessing.”
It’s not just a blessing for Chandler. Several years ago, UK officials realized that most of their financial aid was going to lure top academic students, whether they needed financial aid or not. With the rising cost of college, too many students were leaving school because they couldn’t afford what’s known as the “total cost of attendance:” tuition, room and board, and books. Right now, that tops $30,000 a year.
Deeper analysis found that students with more than $5,000 in unmet need had a much higher chance of dropping out.
In 2016, the LEADS grant program aided about 177 students. UK predicted that only 56 percent of those students would return the next fall without the grant program and that 73 percent would return after receiving help. In reality, about 75 percent of those students returned the next fall.
UK Director of Analytics Todd Brann helps pinpoint the students who need help using a variety of criteria, including whether they have unmet need, may need some remedial work to succeed in college, are first-generation students, or are living off campus.
In the fall of 2017, his analysis identified 365 students who were predicted to drop out at a rate of about 49 percent. Nearly 70 percent of them returned this fall.
“I think we’re identifying students whose only barrier to success is financial and we’re helping them to succeed,” Brann said.
The final retention numbers for the class of 2017 won’t be in until October, but right now it’s a preliminary 84.8 percent. In 2016, that rate was 83.3 percent.
Last fall, the program expanded to start a four-year scholarship called UK Futures, which helps students who have high grades and unmet need the entire time they’re in school.
In addition to helping students like Chandler, the LEADS program helps UK’s bottom line because students who drop out don’t pay tuition, upon which UK is increasingly dependent.
In 2009, for example, state funding made up 55 percent of UK’s General Fund budget, with tuition and fees making up 45 percent. Currently, that ratio is reversed, with state money at 32 percent of the General Fund budget and tuition and fees at 68 percent.
At the same time, many students have become more dependent on state and federal aid. Since the recession of 2008, about one out of three students receive federal Pell grants that help low-income families, according to the Lumina Foundation, and the actual number may be much higher.
That’s why more schools are using programs like LEADS, including Georgia State University’s Panther Retention Grant, which provides micro-grants to help students get past small financial barriers that might stop them from graduating.
At UK, 18 percent of students receive federal Pell grants and the median family income for the poorest 25 percent of UK’s undergraduates is $19,000.
UK hopes to double the number of students helped through the LEADS program by making it a fundraising priority in the university’s upcoming capital campaign. Kirsten Turner, the associate provost for academic excellence, said it’s easy to sell donors on the program because it allows them to give money directly to students.
“One hundred percent of the money goes to the kids who have that need,” she said. “You can see the impact.”
UK President Eli Capilouto said he’s so encouraged by the numbers that “I feel confident asking people to invest in the program.”
“Where we have had recent success is in moving students from those families who have economic challenges to the graduation end point,” Capilouto said.
With Brann’s help, officials have also been able to identify the amount of unmet need in every county in Kentucky. For example, in the fall of 2017, students from Fayette County had $18.2 million in unmet need, with an average of about $10,000 per student. Madison County had $1.1. million in total unmet need, with $10,000 as an average per student. The total statewide is about $64 million.
Recently, an anonymous donor from Harrison County was so impressed with the data that he gave $1 million to cover the unmet need for all students from Harrison County and some adjoining counties as well.
“It’s a compelling story,” Turner said.
When students get a LEADS grant, they also are referred to UK’s new Financial Wellness Office, which advises students on how they can afford college and how to finish in four years, which makes it cheaper.
Chandler said an advisor, Kim Wielgus, helped her get all the holds quickly removed from her file so she could register for the classes she needs to graduate. In the meantime, she’s applied for lab positions to help her finances, although it’s difficult to work too many hours with a full class schedule.
“The classes I need are jam packed,” Chandler said. “It’s a stresser on my mind all the time. But now I’ll be able to graduate in four years, and in my junior summer, I’ll start applying to med school.”