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College completion efforts enter ‘buy-one, get-one’ era

University Business, July 2018
  • SOPHOMORE SAVINGS—Students can complete their second year at Ohio’s Marion Technical College for free if, as freshmen, they keep up their grades and meet with academic and career advisors.
  • SOPHOMORE SAVINGS—Students can complete their second year at Ohio’s Marion Technical College for free if, as freshmen, they keep up their grades and meet with academic and career advisors.

A two-year institution in Ohio has flipped the concept of a college scholarship. Marion Technical College President Ryan McCall says it makes as much sense to help students graduate after they have proved themselves in higher ed.

That idea drives the college’s Buy-One, Get-One tuition model, which will fund all sophomore-year tuition costs (not covered by Pell Grants or other assistance) for students working toward an associate’s degree.

To qualify, students must have earned 30 credits, maintained a 2.5 grade-point average, and met with academic and career advisors during their first three semesters.

“Would you rather fund students who are going off to college and you don’t know the outcome?” says McCall, repeating the pitch he has made to potential program donors. “Or would you rather support a student who has already taken successful steps in college, and fund them for completion?”

The initiative will begin with 30 students. Over the next few years, McCall and his leadership team hope to find donors to expand buy-one, get-one to the entire college.

Fifth is free

Marion’s initiative matches a trend at some four-year colleges that now cover the costs of a fifth year for students trying to earn the final credits to graduate. University of Evansville in Indiana stands among the private institutions now offering a free fifth year, starting with the graduating class of 2020.

Structuring the program required a focus on scheduling—making sure the university could offer all the courses that students in a wide range of majors would need to graduate on time. The guarantee is not an added cost because the university simply discounts the tuition, says Michael Austin, the executive vice president for academic affairs.

“It doesn’t require external funding—it’s soft money,” Austin says. “We don’t have to pay ourselves.”

A four-year finish

At Temple University in Philadelphia, the first group of students to sign the school’s “Fly-in-Four” guarantee graduated in May 2018.

When they entered in 2014, they agreed to hit a series of checkpoints, including meeting with an advisor once per semester and registering on time for upcoming semesters. The advisors help ensure students are earning sufficient credits to progress each year and complete on time.

In exchange, the university will pay for any remaining credits if students don’t finish in four years, says Jodi Levine Laufgraben, vice provost of academic affairs, assessment and institutional research. Students in the program have maintained higher grade-point averages and been retained at higher rates compared to the average student.

Financially, the program did not add overhead. It’s run by a committee that comprises admissions, student success, advising and other department administrators. Temple does offer grants—equal to the salary of a part-time job—to 500 economically disadvantaged students.

“Since we started the program and engaged the campus community in discussions about on-time graduation, our four-year graduation rate climbed from 44 percent to 52 percent,” she says. “We were already seeing improvements before the first class came to the finish line.”