From Acceptance Letter to Degree: How America Completes College

Education Landscape

While getting into college is no small feat, it’s getting the degree that will really help students achieve their dreams. But, as many students are realizing, graduation is not a given.

To better understand barriers to college completion and what helps students graduate, Sallie Mae and Ipsos released the latest research report How America Completes College 2024. The report also serves as a companion to How America Pays for College, the company’s annual research on how families plan and pay for higher education.


1,029 adults (ages 18-30) currently enrolled in a two- or four-year program

427 adults (ages 18-30) who started two- to four-year programs but did not complete them

The study categorizes students into three distinct groups: those “on track” for graduation; those who have never contemplated leaving school; those “at risk” of leaving or facing dismissal; and “non-completers,” adults under the age of 30 who started college but left without obtaining a degree or completing their program.


One in four current undergraduate students say they are at risk of non-completion, and 57% of students at risk of not completing come from low-income households.

At-Risk Students

73% of on-track students were always committed to attending college, compared to 44% of at-risk students. At-risk students are nearly three times more likely to have transferred schools compared to on-track students and are also more likely to come from diverse backgrounds, including being Hispanic, Black, and part of LGBTQIAA+ communities.

Having a plan to pay for all four years of college before enrolling is linked to student graduation rates. See how Sallie Mae helps students plan for college. Students who know what degree or career path they want to pursue are more likely to stay in school.

There is a strong link between mental health and leaving college, and increased mental health challenges highlight the need for more support and resources for all students.

First-Generation Students

First-generation students are twice as likely (41%) to have seriously considered leaving college compared to students from families with college experience (18%). Although 88% of first-generation college students believe college is an investment in the future, they face significant barriers to college completion.

*compared to just one quarter (25%) of on-track students who are working while in school.

Students need support not only to access, but complete higher education. Especially for first-generation students and those from underserved communities, early college planning is critical. By developing programs and resources that support college completion, simplifying the college transfer process and expanding Pell Grants to apply to short-term training programs, policymakers, institutions and higher education stakeholders can help more students finish their degree.

It’s Time to Meaningfully Expand the Pell Grant

Education Landscape

Without question, higher education opens doors of opportunity. Americans with some form of college degree typically earn significantly more in their lifetime than those without a degree.

The median lifetime earnings of an American with a bachelor’s degree is $2.8 million; for an associate degree, it’s $2 million. In contrast, those with a high school diploma have $1.6 million in median lifetime earnings, according to a report from Georgetown University.

In the more than five decades since it launched, the Pell Grant has helped low- and middle-income students unlock a path to economic prosperity by providing critical need-based funding that does not have to be repaid. Since 1980, the Pell Grant has helped more than 211.8 million students access — and complete — higher education.

Nearly seven million undergraduate students receive a Pell Grant each year.  At the same time about $3.6 billion in Pell Grant awards went unclaimed last year, meaning students are missing out on millions of dollars of free aid that could support their higher education. 

It’s time to increase awareness of the Pell Grant and enhance it to meet the needs of 21st-century students, many of whom are first-generation college students, from underserved or underrepresented communities, or exploring non-traditional paths to higher education.

Reforms — such as meaningfully increasing the size of the Pell Grant or allowing it to be applied to more programs — could increase access to higher education and limit the potential for overborrowing, as would informing families about the importance of completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A modernized Pell Grant could put more students on a path to long-term success.

Raising Awareness About FAFSA Completion

To receive a Pell Grant, students must first complete the FAFSA. Our research shows that only 20% of families with a student planning to pursue higher education feel very prepared to complete the FAFSA, and only a third of first-generation families plan to submit the form — even while 42% of them agree that more grant aid would make college more affordable.

Recent updates to simplify the FAFSA application have made the application more streamlined. The updated FAFSA may help significantly more students from low-income backgrounds receive Pell Grants and potentially 1.5 million more students receive the maximum amount than previous years, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education. Raising awareness about completing the FAFSA is key to helping families unlock more aid for higher education.

Meaningfully Increase Funding

A study from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that boosting the size of the Pell Grant would increase college retention and enrollment rates for low-income students. A separate analysis from the Urban Institute concluded that doubling the Pell Grant maximum amount would lead to higher grant awards for students of color, a change that could help to address decades-old education inequalities.

The Pell Grant was increased by $500 last year, but with inflation and higher costs of living, the increase isn’t significant. Sallie Mae supports meaningfully increasing the Pell Grant to meet the needs of students today.

Policymakers should also consider allowing the Pell Grant to be used for short-term skills training programs, such as coding boot camps or trade schools. Expanding the Pell Grant would help students start a new career more affordably while simultaneously addressing skills gaps.

Supporting Those With The Most Need

Our federal student loan program has been broken for far too long, often impacting those who need the most support. Meaningfully expanding the Pell Grant, and increasing awareness of its benefits and the associated application process, are critical to ensure that the federal higher education financing system does what it was intended to — facilitate access to education for those with the greatest need.

Sallie Mae Commits $1M to Delaware State University to Close College Completion Gap

Education Landscape

Sallie Mae, through The Sallie Mae Fund, announced a $1 million research endowment to Delaware State University (DSU) to help close the college completion gap. The grant will support a comprehensive three-year “Persistence and Completion Pilot Program” that will identify and study barriers to degree completion, help students return to school and complete, and help develop policy recommendations and best practices to enhance student re-engagement at DSU, HBCUs, and institutions across the country.

Graduation rates at HBCUs remain lower than the national average: nationwide, six in 10 students who start college go on to earn a degree within six years; at HBCUs around 40% do. The number of students who have some college experience, but no degree, is a distressing 40 million. In addition, 19 percent of Black learners — nearly 6.4 million students — had some college experience but no degree. Approximately 3 million are “near completers” who have stopped out mere credits away from degree completion.

The program will create a student-centered and data-focused co-branded white paper that lays out higher education policy solutions to increase degree completion. The paper will uplift diverse student voices who have lived experience leaving college without a degree. Research findings and learnings will be presented at a future DSU HBCU Philanthropy Symposium to offer outcomes and recommend solutions for degree completion that can be broadly considered and implemented at HBCUs and institutions nationwide.

Part of the funding will also scale DSU’s current Near Completer program—created in partnership with Thurgood Marshall College—which identifies students with only some college experience and supports their re-enrollment and degree completion. DSU and Sallie Mae have identified over 900 near-completer students, hundreds of whom the program will look to re-engage. The program will also offer $125,000 in scholarships to help cover financial barriers, such as food and technology insecurities, in addition to tuition, fees and books.  

This partnership reflects Sallie Mae and Delaware State University’s shared commitment to close the college completion gap at HBCUs and provide critical support through research, policy recommendations, and financial aid. 

The partnership was celebrated in December at the 13th Annual Delaware State University Scholarship Ball. At the ball, Sallie Mae CEO Jon Witter noted, “Our mission is to power confidence as students begin their unique journey. We are all about helping students with that journey to, through, and immediately after their higher education experience. This builds community and a culture of dedication to the university, and that lasts for years.”

Sallie Mae Awards $250,000 in Scholarships to Increase Access to Higher Education

Education Landscape

To commemorate National Scholarship Month, Sallie Mae announced the latest recipients of its Bridging the Dream Scholarship for High School Seniors. The Sallie Mae Fund, the company’s charitable arm, has partnered with Thurgood Marshall College Fund for the last three years to award scholarships to deserving under-resourced and underrepresented students. 

This year’s 27 deserving high school students were awarded up to $10,000 each to access higher education.

The diverse and impressive Bridging the Dream scholarship recipients were selected from more than 1,100 applicants nationwide and a majority are attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities. They are pursuing a diverse range of degrees, including criminal justice, musical theater, social work, engineering, and more.

Meet this year’s outstanding students.

2023-2024 Bridging the Dream Scholarships Recipients

Mohamed Adam

Hometown: New Hyde Park, N.Y.

College: Stony Brook University

Major/Minor: Political Science and Economics

Nicholas Allen

Hometown: Milton, Ga.

College: North Carolina A&T University

Major/Minor: Biology, Business Finance and Engineering

Azhyia Clemons

Hometown: Rochester, N.Y.

College: North Carolina Central University

Major/Minor: Pre-Law, Political Science and Accounting

Madison Corzine

Hometown: Fort Worth, Texas

College: Spelman College

Major/Minor: Political Science

Emery  Delbridge

Hometown: McDonough, Ga.

College: Savannah State University

Major/Minor: Environmental Science

Na’Zari Donegal-Pringle

Hometown: Wilmington, Del.

College: Delaware State University

Major/Minor: Business

Nyela Harrison

Hometown: Hayward, Calif.

College: Hampton University

Major/Minor: Systems, Organization and Management

Nakeia Jones

Hometown: Conway, Ark.

College: Middle Tennessee State University

Major/Minor: Audio Production

Anna Kaplan

Hometown: Centreville, Va.

College: Oakland University

Major/Minor: Musical Theatre

Victoria Latino

Hometown: Mine Hill, N.J.

College: Niagara University

Major/Minor: Criminal Justice

Dominic Lee

Hometown: Kennesaw, Ga.

College: Clark Atlanta University

Major/Minor: Pre-Law, Business, Marketing, Communications and Spanish

Marcellus Odum

Hometown: Lake Cormorant, Miss.

College: Georgia Institute of Technology

Major/Minor: Mechanical Engineering and Public Policy

Nydia Phillips

Hometown: Texas, Ala.

Major/Minor: Southern University and A&M College

Major/Minor: Business

Andrew Pierre

Hometown: Lanham, Md.

College: Bowie State University

Major/Minor: Computer Science and Engineering

Reyna Porter

Hometown: Lithonia, Ga.

College: Howard University

Major/Minor: Theatre Arts and Sports Medicine

Chayil Rattler

Hometown: Stockbridge, Ga.

College: Jackson State University

Major/Minor: Mass Media Arts, Theatre

Tyson Redding

Hometown: Fontana, Calif.

College: University of Hawaii of Manoa

Major/Minor: Education, Business and Animation

Maya Stepnick

Hometown: Toledo, Ohio

College: The Ohio State University

Major/Minor: Environmental Science or Social Work (Undecided)

Jared Wilder

Hometown: North Charleston, S.C.

College: Hampton University

Major/Minor: Physics and Biology

Sydney Wright

Hometown: Richmond, Va.

College: Norfolk State University

Major/Minor: Broadcast Journalism

Makaila Young

Hometown: Oswego, Ill.

College: Xavier University of Louisiana

Major/Minor: Biology, Chemistry and Spanish

Ka’Mya Anderson

Hometown: Horn Lake, Miss.

College: Alabama A&M University

Major/Minor: Biology

Sienna Stewart

Hometown: Gahanna, Ohio

College: Kentucky State University

Major/Minor: Environmental Science

Alexander Young

Hometown: Douglasville, Ga.

College: Morehouse College

Major/Minor: Cybersecurity

Devin Dixon

Hometown: Ellenwood, Ga.

College: Tuskegee University

Major/Minor: Veterinary/Animal Sciences

Matthew Payne

Hometown: Jonesboro, Ga.

College: Fort Valley State University

Major/Minor: Electrical Engineering

Milan Rothe

Hometown: Lakeway, Texas

College: Howard University

Major/Minor: Herbal Medicine, African Studies and Business Marketing

Focusing Reform to Address the College Completion Gap

Education Landscape

The promise of higher education comes from earning a degree, not from merely earning a few college credits. Still, far too many students begin college and fall short before reaching the finish line. In fact, the number of students who have some college experience, but no degree has reached a staggering 40 million.

Read more from Nicolas Jafarieh, Sallie Mae Executive Vice President, on how common-sense reforms to address the college completion gap can help more students not only access college, but successfully earn their degrees.

Three Organizations Helping Students Access — and Complete — College

Education Landscape

Higher education lays the foundation for future success, but between applying for scholarships and grants, to decoding financial aid offers, paying for college can be a complex undertaking.  

As an education solutions provider and responsible private lender, Sallie Mae is doing its part to power confidence in students and families as they navigate to, through, and immediately after college. Through tools and services that connect students to scholarships and planning resources, we help families make informed decisions so they can confidently achieve their higher education goals. Sallie Mae, through its charitable arm, The Sallie Mae Fund, also awards scholarships to help students from all backgrounds access and complete their higher education.

Here are three other organizations that help students effectively plan for higher education.

1. Reach Higher Helps First-Generation Students Access College

Reach Higher, founded by former first lady Michelle Obama, supports and guides high school students who are the first in their families to attend college.

Its free UpNext tool sends personalized text messages — from peer and professional advisors— to high school students with information about the application process, which has led to higher rates of FAFSA completion, and college enrollment after high school and sophomore year returns, according to data from Reach Higher. Mentors also answer questions and provide reminders about upcoming deadlines, setting students up for success.

2. The Posse Foundation Graduates 90% of its Scholars

For more than 30 years, the Posse Foundation has helped thousands of students from underserved communities apply for — and complete — college. Today, the organization works with more than 60 partner colleges and universities, and recruits students from cities nationwide, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Miami and more.

Posse students start meeting with staff and peer mentors during their senior year of high school to best prepare them for college. Once on campus, the scholars meet regularly with mentors and each other, helping to build a support system and boost retention. As graduation approaches, the Posse Foundation helps students find internship and career opportunities.

The organization reports a 90% graduation rate, and its alums include Shirley Collado, the president of Ithaca College, the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers Koby Altman, and Erica Spatz, a cardiologist and professor at the Yale School of Medicine.

3. Generation Hope Supports Teen Parents

Through its Scholar program, Generation Hope provides teen parents in D.C. and New Orleans with tuition assistance, tutoring, mental health support, child-care assistance and more, so they can complete their degrees. The students’ young children can receive early literacy support so that they’re ready to start kindergarten.

While less than 2% of teen parents earn a college degree by age 30, 62% of Generation Hope scholars graduate in six years, roughly the same as the national graduation rate. More than 80% of graduates have full-time jobs or are in graduate school within six months of finishing school.

Generation Hope also draws on its experience to help colleges and universities better support student parents.

Building a stronger, student-centered higher education financing system that prioritizes the best interests of students will require groups like these and all stakeholders – private sector, federal programs, colleges and universities – to come together.

Supreme Court Ruling on Federal Student Debt Cancellation Should Be a Wake-Up Call

Education Landscape

Sallie Mae CEO Jon Witter penned an op-ed for The Hill that highlighted a variety of common-sense solutions to constructively address the broken federal higher education system in need of significant and lasting reform that supports students and limits overborrowing.

“If we fail to make significant structural reforms to the federal higher education system, another generation of students and families will inevitably face the same hurdles so many face today. The Supreme Court’s decision is a call for us to come together and work toward meaningful reform,” he wrote.

Read the full piece here.

The Sallie Mae Fund and Thurgood Marshall College Fund Announce $100,000 in Scholarships to 10 Graduate Students

Education Landscape

Since 2021, Sallie Mae, through its charitable arm, The Sallie Mae Fund, has partnered with Thurgood Marshall College Fund to award scholarships to help students from all backgrounds access and complete higher education.  The Sallie Mae Fund’s Bridging the Dream Scholarship for Graduate Students provides $10,000 to 10 deserving graduate students who plan to use their degree to advocate for social justice and support their communities. 

This year’s scholarship recipients are enrolled in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, state colleges, and Ivy league universities and were selected from nearly 500 applicants. They are aspiring doctors, nurses, educators, engineers, and social workers, with diverse and unique backgrounds. 

In many cases, these diverse and deserving recipients have shown tremendous resiliency and have overcome a variety of obstacles that too often can put higher education out of reach – whether it be a first-generation student or coming from historically marginalized communities, and in some cases, both.

Congratulations to the 2023 recipients of The Sallie Mae Fund and Thurgood Marshall College Fund Bridging the Dream Scholarship for Graduate Students!

2023 Bridging the Dream Scholarship for Graduate Students Recipients

Shawnda Williams

Hometown: Apopka, FL

College: Florida A&M University

Program: Master of Public Health 

Marcela Dos Santos

Hometown: Irvine, CA

College: University of California—Irvine

Program: Doctor of Nursing Practice, FNP

Angela  Ji

Hometown: Ellicott City, MD

College: James Madison University

Program: Master of Psychology

Tyreece Santana

Hometown: Bronx, NY

College: Columbia University

Program: Master of Science, Mechanical Engineering

Jacqueline Pauley

Hometown: Rose Hill, VA

College: James Madison University       

Program: Master of Education

Tia Briggs

Hometown: Oklahoma City, OK

College: Langston University

Program: Master of Science, Rehabilitation

Denerick Simpson

Hometown: Doerun, GA

College: Savannah State University

Program: Master of Public Administration

Ahmad Elhaija

Hometown: Anaheim, CA

College: UCLA, David Geffen School of Medicine

Program: M.D. Doctor of Medicine

Katherine Esser

Hometown: Toledo, OH

College: College of Medicine and Life Sciences, University of Toledo

Program: Doctor of Medicine

Fabiola Limon

Hometown: Santa Maria, CA

College: University of Massachusetts—Global

Program: Master of Social Work

The Bridging the Dream Scholarship Program is part of a three-year, $3 million commitment made by The Sallie Mae Fund to open doors of higher education to students from all backgrounds, including those from underserved or underrepresented communities. To date, more than 600 scholarships worth $2 million have been awarded to help students access and complete their education.

Applications for the Bridging the Dream Scholarship for High School Seniors will open on February 6, 2023.

The Important Role of HBCUs in Higher Education and Why They Need More Support

Education Landscape

Sallie Mae Hosted Delaware State University President Dr. Tony Allen to Discuss Significance and Support of HBCUs

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) comprise only three percent of the country’s colleges and universities yet produce almost 20% of all African American graduates. In a post-pandemic era with economic challenges disproportionately hitting underserved and underrepresented communities, choosing an HBCU is critical for so many students’ higher education experience.  

Dr. Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University – the state’s only HBCU – and Chair of the Historically Black College and University Advisory Board under President Biden, recently visited Sallie Mae’s Newark headquarters to share insights about the role HBCUs play in advancing access and completion in higher education, and how the private sector can further support those efforts. For Sallie Mae, supporting HBCUs has remained a focus, particularly through scholarship programs and financial education initiatives. Dr. Allen and Sallie Mae Chief Diversity Officer Lori Aiken spoke spiritedly to a standing room only audience and over 500 more telecasted about the value of an education at HBCUs and how they help in building a stronger, more inclusive, higher education system.

Some highlights and key takeaways from that conversation:

1. HBCUs play a critical role in our country.

“Today’s 101 public and private HBCUs graduate more than 300,000 students annually; generate nearly $15 billion in direct economic impact; and produce 80% of Black judges; 40% of Black science professionals; 70% of Black medical professionals, and 40% of Black Members of Congress. In no small measure, HBCUs are the driving forces of Black social mobility, the defining voices of Black America, and a critical part of American global competitiveness,” Dr. Allen said. 

2. Scholarships matter for minority students and students from underserved communities.

Scholarships open the door to higher education for students and families who otherwise may not have access to the opportunities. Delaware State University’s Inspire Scholarship provides a free four years of tuition to qualifying Delaware high school seniors. Students with a 2.75 GPA and a willingness to complete 10 hours of community service each semester are eligible.

Since launching the Inspire Scholarship, Delaware State University has seen a 15% increase in its enrollment.

“Not only are you getting a four-year tuition scholarship, but you’re also getting a quality education and citizenship training that comes with it,” Dr. Allen said.

To help support college access and completion, Sallie Mae partnered with The Thurgood Marshall College Fund to offer $3 million in scholarships to students from underserved communities.

To date, more than $1.5 million has already been awarded to students across the country. More than 70% of recipients of the company’s Completing the Dream Scholarship program — which removes financial barriers in the way of college completion – attended HBCUs.

3. Higher education needs reform to better serve those who need public support.

Dr. Allen shared a few ideas for building a stronger higher education system, speaking about the importance of increasing funding for HBCUs to put them on a more equal playing field with predominantly white institutions.

Dr. Allen also spoke about the importance of colleges increasing their graduations rates — a top focus at Delaware State — and encouraged the federal government to triple the Pell Grant.  Closing gaps in college completion for Black students will take improving graduation rates at HBCUs; changing enrollment patterns so that selective institutions enroll more black students; and increasing the support that students receive in college so that they can persist through graduation day. 

Sallie Mae is proud to be a leader in supporting HBCUs and their students. As the title sponsor of the HBCU Week 2022 College Fair in Walt Disney World – an event that draws more than 3,500 college seeking students to connect with HBCU representatives – Sallie Mae recognizes the significance of HBCUs, their rich history, and the ability to impact thousands of students looking for the opportunity to attend college. It’s opportunities and conversations like these that help Sallie Mae continue to transform into an education solutions company, as is our focus on additional services to support all students to, through, and immediately after college.

Five Things to Know About College Completion in America

Education Landscape

In 2020, around 19.4 million students started their first year of college in the fall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By the end of four years, 40% of those students will earn a degree, which increases to a 60% completion rate at the six-year mark.

To better understand college completion, Sallie Mae® and Ipsos conducted a new research report, How America Completes College, looking at students’ journeys to college graduation, barriers to completion, and opportunities to support their success. The study compares the perceptions of higher education among Completers (young adults ages 18 to 30 who have completed a 2 or 4-year degree) and Non-Completers (young adults ages 18 to 30 who started a 2 or 4-year degree but withdrew before completing the program).

Five findings from the research include:

1. First-Generation Students Need More Support

Nearly 70% of Completers have at least one parent who graduated from college, compared to 51% of Non-Completers. This suggests that for first-generation students, degree completion rates tend to be lower.

Previous research has also shown less than one-third of first-generation students plan to submit the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), a key step to receive financial aid.  This supports findings that first-generation college students require additional financial, academic and social support while completing their program.

2. Completers are Confident and Committed to Higher Education

Nearly three-quarters of Completers said they decided to attend college before reaching high school, with 60% saying they “always” knew they would go. Nine-out-of-ten Completers were confident a college would accept them, and 89% felt sure they’d graduate.

In comparison, more than half (55%) of Non-Completers decided to pursue higher education after they started high school; 34% decided to attend college during their junior year or after.

One more critical difference: Nearly 60% of Completers were confident in their family’s ability to pay for their degree.

3. Completers More Likely Had a Plan to Pay for College

Completers were more likely to prepare for college by discussing the application process with their family, taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, and preparing to pay for school.

Overall, 42% of Completers had a plan to pay for college education before while only 26% of Non-Completers had a plan. 

Research has also underscored the connection between planning to pay for college and maximizing the choices a student has when selecting a college. 

4. Completers View College as Investment

An overwhelming majority of Completers — 82% — consider a college degree an investment in their future, compared to just 58% of Non-Completers. 

Moreover, 60% of Completers knew the exact career or the general field they wanted to work in when starting college.

5. Non-Completers Don’t Feel Supported

Nearly all Non-Completers – 92% — report being motivated by a parent, teacher, high school counselor or friend to go to college, but once on campus they lose that sense of support.

More than 40% of Non-Completers rated resources for academic, financial and mental health as fair or poor. This lack of support is compounded by the issues Non-Completers report, including difficulty prioritizing mental health, struggling to find the right career path or major, and financial difficulties.

These findings demonstrate the importance of talking regularly about the options for higher education— including trade and vocational schools — and options to pay for those schools.

They also highlight the need to provide financial support to first-generation college students, low-income students and those from traditionally underserved communities who are more likely to be at risk for not completing their degree or career program.

Resources should be focused on these students, so they can complete college confidently with greater access to scholarships and grants. Sallie Mae® is proud to be supporting through a scholarship program with Thurgood Marshall College Fund to help students from underserved communities access and complete college.  

It’s one of the many ways Sallie Mae® is working to ensure more students achieve their dreams of earning an advanced degree.