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Closing the retention gap: Pitt Success Pell Match Program celebrates new milestone
The University of Pittsburgh is celebrating a milestone for its Pitt Success Pell Match Program, the largest-ever restructuring of financial aid in the University’s history. In its first year, the program has virtually closed the retention gap for students eligible for the U.S. Department of Education’s Pell Grants programs.
Under this program, the University matches federal Pell Grant funds, dollar for dollar, up to the cost of attendance for qualified students across all five Pitt campuses.
According to data released at the Board of Trustees' fall meeting on Sept. 25, the student retention rate for Pell-eligible students rose from 86.9% to 93.4%, which essentially mirrors the rate for students who are not Pell-eligible.
Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd, who spearheaded and helped to launch the Pitt Success Pell Match Program in February 2019, said that finances are typically the top concern cited by students who do not return to campus year after year — and that the new data speaks for itself. “This program is proof of the point that, in fact, if you clear away the obstacles or mitigate them, students will return,” said Cudd.
Cudd added that it’s not just that the gap is closed, but that the retention rate is better than ever among all Pitt students. “It’s really a remarkable feat,” she said.
The program also extends to students on the University’s regional campuses, where financial need runs the highest in the Pitt community. “Our retention rates are very strong on our regional campuses. It is likely due to Pitt Success as well and it’s clearly making a big difference there,” said Cudd.
Aid during a pandemic
Regardless of the pandemic, Cudd said nothing stood in the way of helping students in the $27 million program. “We stuck with our budget and our commitment to help these students was unwavering,” said Cudd.
Randall McCready, executive director of financial aid, explained that the pandemic showed Pitt’s true colors in times of crisis. “When COVID hit, the commitment that this university had was two-fold: first, to its students and second, to its employees,” he said.
McCready said that it was fortuitous that the University had already made a commitment to assisting students with financial aid with the Pitt Success Pell Match Program before the pandemic, because it allowed for more flexibility.
“A significant commitment to helping many students with need-based aid was already in place prior to COVID. It was fortuitous that the focus on trying to help with need-based aid happened when it did, because it gave us a lot of flexibility in using those dollars that had already been allocated to help those students,” said McCready. “This way, students aren’t getting less aid which could result in not being able to return to school, or even attend.”
To help students whose financial situations unexpectedly changed during the course of the pandemic, McCready and his team were able to implement a “professional judgment call.” In this manner, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid can consider projected reductions in income and other circumstances to calculate the overall financial aid eligibility.
“We have conversations with families and get to a recalculation that has to be an objective evaluation; we take the emotion out of it,” he said. “Then, we get to a situation where we hope that we can get them more financial aid, which could be an increase in a federal Pell Grant.”
Now in the program’s second year, Cudd said her ultimate goal for Pitt Success has remained the same: making a Pitt education affordable and accessible to a range of talented students.
Additional aspirations for the program, said Cudd, include improving the diversity of the student population, especially those among Pell-eligible underrepresented minority students, reducing student debt upon graduation and increasing graduation rates.
Cudd said that receiving financial aid through the Pitt Success program could also allow students more flexibility while they’re at Pitt, such as deciding not to take on a part-time job, adding another major or pursuing another opportunity for academic enrichment.
“It will be interesting to see what other decision-making students go through during their time at Pitt,” said Cudd. “We will look at these things as we go forward and assess the many ways that financial freedom will help our students get the most out of their Pitt experience.”
‘You belong here’
Last year at this time, Cudd was planning a trip to the symphony with students in Provost Academy, many of whom are Pitt Success students. This year, during pandemic times, Cudd said engagement will still happen, but it will look different. Still, she has a message for Pitt Success students: “You belong here, and we are happy to have you here,” said Cudd. “You add so much to the student body and we want you to take advantage of every opportunity that the University provides.”
McCready said in his 30-year career in higher education he has never seen a program quite like the Pitt Success Pell Match Program.
“Pitt created this program for these students. Every Pitt student was valued,” said McCready. “I’ve never seen a program like this. I’ve never been at a place that’s committed this amount of money to this population of students. It is seeking to really move the needle in an area that’s significant.”