EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

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June 23, 2013

State aims to tie aid to grad rates

Leonardo Casillas is only a junior at Lynn Classical High School and has yet to apply to college, but the state of Massachusetts has already given him a scholarship.

Casillas, 17, is one of a select 25 students this year who received the Christian Herter Memorial Scholarship, part of more than $127 million a year in taxpayer-funded scholarships, grants, no-interest loans and tuition waivers provided to students attending public or private colleges in or out of state.

The son of a single mother of four, Casillas is planning to use the money to study engineering or the sciences. And he has no doubt he’ll finish college.

“Of course I’m going to get a degree,” Casillas said. “I have an obligation to my mother. I have an obligation to my school. I have an obligation to the people who have helped me.”

But until recently the state didn’t know whether recipients of any of that $127 million a year in scholarships, grants and other aid ever actually graduated. It now tracks those students attending public colleges and universities. But state officials still have no way of tracking whether students who accept state-funded financial aid for private colleges and universities — 40 percent of the total — ever get degrees.

Of the full-time, degree-seeking recipients of MASSGrant financial aid who started public colleges and universities in 2005—the first group the state has followed through the process — 17.5 percent finished two-year associate’s degrees within three years. Just over 60 percent earned four-year bachelor’s degrees within six years, according to records provided to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting by the Department of Higher Education.

That’s not significantly different from the graduation rates of other Massachusetts students, said Jonathan Keller, the state’s associate commissioner of higher education for research and planning.

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