New ranking shows UMSL tops among Missouri schools offering need-based financial aid to upperclassmen

Millennium Student Center

The Finish Your Degree Scholarship and the Senior Degree Completion Program are two programs the university created with an eye on helping upperclassmen complete their degrees and enhance their opportunities for future success. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The University of Missouri–St. Louis aims to provide opportunity for people to shape their own futures through education, regardless of their economic background.

That mission requires making it feasible for students – who might otherwise not have had access – to begin pursuing a college degree. But it also means providing them support they need to graduate and enter the workforce without being buried in debt.

UMSL ranked first in Missouri and 53rd nationally among public colleges and universities offering upperclassmen the most need-based financial aid, according to data compiled by The Student Loan Report. Its average need-based financial aid for upperclassmen is $7,712 annually.

Only four other schools in Missouri ranked in the top 200, none higher than the University of Missouri–Kansas City, which was No. 136, providing average need-based financial aid of $5,519.

“We enroll a large population of non-traditional students who are heavily dependent on financial aid,” said Alan Byrd, UMSL’s vice provost of enrollment management.  “We realized a few years ago that we had a growing population of seniors who were exhausting their financial aid before they finished their degrees.”

A majority of UMSL students transfer from other institutions – sometimes more than one – and often they’ve already received a significant portion of federal Pell grants or are nearing the limits on their federal student loans before they arrive on campus.

“We knew that because of the type of institution that we are,” Byrd said, “we had to create financial aid programs to address those issues and provides students with an opportunity to finish their degrees.”

As part of the campus strategic plan that was implemented in the 2012-13 academic year, UMSL created the Finish Your Degree Scholarship program with funding from private donors and the UMSL Alumni Association and the institution-funded Senior Degree Completion Program.

The Finish Your Degree Scholarship provides up to $1,000 to students with small balances that would prevent them from returning to UMSL. This scholarship allows graduating seniors to register for classes in their last semester and finish their degrees.

The Senior Degree Completion Program is a competitive scholarship that provides financial support for students who’ve exhausted their federal Pell grant, and it covers the cost of tuition for up to two semesters if needed (with preference given to students who need 15 hours or less to graduate).

Byrd said over 150 students are graduating from UMSL each year with the help of at least one of those two programs.

Many of those students otherwise could have been left with significant student loan debt to pay off and without the increased earning power of having a college degree.

Before implementing the two programs, UMSL students’ loan default rate was 10.5 percent, which Byrd said was pushing above the national average. That number has dropped to 7.4 percent since 2012.

UMSL has also seen its combined six-year graduate rate ­– including freshman enrollees and transfers – rise to 60 percent for the first time in its history.

“For us, it’s great to see that the strategic plan that we implemented and the programs that we developed are actually working,” Byrd said. “We are definitely seeing the results now. To be able to graduate 60 percent of our students this year, that was awesome, and this ranking is kind of confirmation that we made the right decision five years ago.”

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