Rutgers University - Camden's "Bridging the Gap" program has increased enrollment rates and lowered students' stress levels. 

As student loan debt and tuition prices continue to steadily rise, many colleges are starting to look for ways to help students cut costs. A preliminary report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia suggests that targeted supplemental financial aid might be a good solution.

The study looked at Rutgers University–Camden’s “Bridging the Gap” program. The “last dollar” program provides first-year undergraduates supplemental funding once their available financial aid is used. This ensures that students can pay for college if they have trouble figuring it out.

According to the study’s findings, the program increased enrollment rates and lowered students’ stress levels around finances. However, there isn’t enough data to show whether the program positively affected academic performance.

Keith Wardrip co-authored the report and he observed that the program seemed especially beneficial to low-income and African American students. The study found that students with households making less than $60,000 a year were 5 percent more likely to enroll in Rutgers University–Camden than the previous year.

Eileen Divringi, another co-author on the report, said the program made college more affordable for students. Divringi said that one of the study’s biggest findings was that students are more likely to enroll in college when they feel it’s more affordable.

Prior to enrolling in the Rutgers University–Camden program, many students believed that community college was their only option. “A lot of them thought that a four-year degree was sort of out of reach financially,” Divringi told public media outlet WHYY.

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The co-authors were surprised to find that paying for books, living expenses, and supplies created just as much financial stress for students as high tuition costs. Divringi said that while increasing tuition prices tend to dominate the conversation about college expenses “…a lot of students we talked to…did have to take out student loans to cover these other expenses.”

Wardrip and Divringi said they chose Rutgers University–Camden for the study because the student population has a wide variety of economic backgrounds. The co-authors hope these findings will give new insight to discussions about college affordability. They also hope it will serve as a guide to schools considering launching similar programs.

The program debuted in 2016 and the data on academic performance is incomplete at this time. However, the program does seem to be helping students so far. Study participants reported that they were able to minimize their reliance on student loans and cut down on their working hours.

The Federal Reserve does plan to follow up on the program during its third and fifth year. Future reports will track graduation rates, academic performance, and financial resources.