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

A college education is the best investment students can make in their future. For many, however, the cost is simply too high. And it keeps getting higher. From 1991-1992 to 2021-2022, tuition at public four-year institutions increased more than 2.5 times, after adjusting for inflation. The College Board reported that, in 2019-20, approximately 60% of the more than $184 billion in financial assistance awarded to undergraduates through programs sponsored by the federal government, state governments, colleges and universities, philanthropic organizations, and other entities was in the form of grants. While researchers have examined the effects of individual grant aid programs on particular college student outcomes, results have indicated varied effects. Moreover, individual study findings have not been widely synthesized or examined to understand why some programs succeed where others do not. With grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, DSG, along with researchers from the American Institutes for Research and the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to assess the impact of grant aid on college student outcomes, from initial enrollment through degree completion, and post-college job outcomes.


We conducted a comprehensive systematic review and meta-analysis to provide structure to this varied field and better understand programmatic effects. The results of the systematic searching and screening yielded 86 studies, across seven outcome domains, and the meta-analysis synthesized findings from 709 effect sizes from study samples representing 7,656,062 individuals. The meta-analytic results found small but meaningful positive average effects on college enrollment, credit accumulation, persistence, and completion. We cannot conclude from available studies that grant aid increases academic achievement or post-college labor market outcomes. We also found that grants had larger positive effects on credit accumulation for studies with samples of students at two-year institutions and that did not differentiate between two-year and four-year students than for studies with samples of students at four-year institutions only. Using a relatively new method called an evidence gap map, we illustrate where researchers should focus on producing new evidence.



Note: The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A180102 to Development Services Group, Inc. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.


Effects of Losing Postsecondary Student Grant Aid: Results from a Systematic Review

Studies that evaluated the loss of grant aid, either through changes to the aid program or because students did not meet aid renewal requirements, were excluded from this meta-analysis but analyzed separately (LaSota, Perna, Polanin, Austin, Steingut, & Rodgers, 2021).

With the goal of informing federal and state policy makers in a time of budget constraints, we used a systematic review methodology to identify and summarize findings from studies that examined the effects of losing grant aid due to policy changes and students’ failure to meet renewal requirements. Studies reviewed in this policy brief show 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. This brief illuminates the importance of maintaining grant aid funding for college student enrollment, persistence, achievement, and completion. Especially in context of other pandemic-related stressors, reducing need-based grant aid will likely exacerbate declines in college enrollment, progression through college, and degree completion for vulnerable students.



For more information, contact DSG Senior Research Scientist Robin LaSota at or 301.951.0056.