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

This project focused on synthesizing the effects of grant aid to undergraduates. Grants, defined as money that reduces college costs and does not have to be repaid, may be awarded based on financial need and/or academic merit, place of residence, or other criteria. Aid includes grants, scholarships, “free tuition,” tuition waivers, and subsidies. Tuition-price setting, athletic scholarships, individual tax savings accounts, work study, and aid programs requiring service are excluded. Aid programs that are bundled together and do not analyze the effect of one specified aid program are also excluded. Studies of the elimination or loss of grant aid meeting these intervention criteria were included and analyzed separately from the studies evaluating effects of the presence of grant aid.

Studies that met inclusion criteria featured seven different types of grant aid programs: 1) federal grants, 2) national scholarships, 3) state-sponsored grants, 4) institutional grants, 5) student performance-based financial incentives, 6) emergency financial assistance, and 7) promise programs.

Project Activities: The first stage of the project involved completion of a systematic review of the research literature on financial aid published between January 1, 2002 and January 15, 2020, which identified evaluation studies that meet a pre-established set of criteria for inclusion in the meta-analysis. Studies that analyzed individual student data with randomized–controlled trials, regression discontinuity designs, difference-in-differences analyses, and other quasi-experimental studies were eligible for inclusion. To prevent sample selection bias, the project team conducted an exhaustive search for references in electronic databases, publication repositories, conference paper archives, reference lists within published articles, and contacts with authors of aid program evaluations.

The second stage involved coding each identified study for the type of financial aid program evaluated and its key features, the effect sizes associated with the aid program in relation to each of five postsecondary outcomes, and the main design and methodological attributes of the study. Using rigorous systematic review procedures, we identified 9,900 citations for abstract screening, 1,250 citations for full-text screening, and 86 studies with 709 effect sizes that met our inclusion criteria. The project team conducted meta-analytic procedures considered state-of-the-art, including pre-planned confirmatory and exploratory moderator analyses, and created evidence gap maps to concisely illustrate the quantity and magnitude of effects from existing research.

Key findings:

  • Grants had positive effects on college enrollment, credit accumulation, persistence, and degree completion. Our translated effect estimates suggest that grants increased the enrollment rate among prospective college students by 2.8 percentage points, increased persistence rates by 2 percentage points, and increased completion rates by 0.4 percentage points (LaSota, Polanin, Perna, Rodgers, & Austin, under review).
  • LaSota and colleagues (under review) found that the positive effects of grant aid are generally comparable for studies of students at two-year and four-year institutions. The one exception was for effects on credit accumulation. We found that grant aid had a larger positive effect on credit accumulation for samples of students at two-year institutions and samples of students at two-year and four-year institutions than for students at four-year institutions.
  • Moderator analyses showed that the positive effects of grants did not vary based on eligibility criteria, grant program type, early commitment or residence requirements, presence of non-financial supports, award duration, average annual award amount, or type of costs covered by the grant (LaSota, Polanin, Perna, Rodgers, & Austin, under review).
  • Although differences in effects by average annual award amount were not statistically significant, a review of the pattern of coefficients suggests that the magnitude of the positive effects of grants increases with the average annual amount of the grant aid award. This pattern held for all outcome domains except post-college labor market outcomes (where we identified only a small number of few studies) (LaSota, Polanin, Perna, Rodgers, & Austin, under review).
  • Based on a systematic review of research on the effects of losing grant aid, LaSota and colleagues (2021) found 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.
  • Evidence gap maps demonstrate that we know more about the effects of some types of grants than others. Included studies more frequently examined the effects of grants on enrollment and completion, and less frequently examined the effects on post-college labor market outcomes. More studies have examined the effects of state and institutional grants, while fewer studies have examined the effects of national scholarships, federal targeted grant aid, and promise programs. More is known about the effects of programs that award grants based on need or merit, whereas fewer studies have examined the effects of programs that consider both need and merit or neither need nor merit (LaSota, Polanin, Perna, Rodgers, & Austin, under review).


U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, R305A180102


Principal Investigator: Robin R. LaSota, DSG

Co-Principal Investigators: Laura W. Perna, Penn GSE, and Joshua R. Polanin, AIR


  • LaSota, R., Perna, L. W., and Faith, H. (2021). Review of the Effects of College Grant Aid Programs: Implications for Financial Aid Administrators.  Q&A document and Presentation Webinar handouts are available to download within the NASFAA webinar event console:
  • LaSota, R., Polanin, J. R., Perna, L. W., Rodgers, M. A., and Austin, M. J. (2022). Effects of grant aid on college student outcomes: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Presentation at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association.


Open Science Framework page:

Policy Briefs:

LaSota, R. R., Polanin, J. R., & Perna, L. W. (2022). Effects of postsecondary grant aid on college student outcomes: Briefing of Results from a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Bethesda, MD: Development Services Group, Inc.

Journal articles: