The Road to $532 Million: How Do We Grow Lower-Income Student Graduation Rates?

December 6, 2023 By Eric Williamson, Eric Williamson,

More young people from families with modest incomes are entering college. That’s a good thing. There is a problem, though: Their graduation rates aren’t keeping up with their more financially secure peers. 

“In many cases, students are just going along,” University of Virginia research professor Chris Hulleman said. “They show up at a place that doesn’t fit them, doesn’t fit their goals.”

Hulleman said the answer lies in more sophisticated advising. In that vein, his Motivate Lab received $2.4 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help solve the problem by refining an online dashboard for postsecondary counselors.

The UVA Office of the Vice President for Research is celebrating sponsored research like this, which resulted in a record $532 million in external funding for the 2023 fiscal year, with grants of all sizes making the difference.

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“With high school guidance counselors, maybe they just have a number of colleges every kid has to apply to – say three colleges,” he said. “Maybe they do that really successfully, but they haven’t had the time or resources to say ‘Student X, what are you the most interested in? What do you want to accomplish in life? What’s most important to you? Is it being close to family? What kind of career do you want?’ 

“Also, it’s giving these students a voice. ‘Hey, your peers are doing community college; is that what you want to do?’”

In this project, Motivate Lab doesn’t work directly with students, he noted; it works with the programs helping them.

The lab’s Navigator Toolkit app is specifically designed for colleges to effectively grab the advising baton. The toolkit is an evolving online repository of resources and activities. They help advisers support adaptive mindsets in students when times get tough.

For example, an activity called “Identifying Sparks” helps advisers work with students to identify deep interests that can be used to guide decision making about future educational and career pathways. The resource is essentially a guide for conversations. The adviser has a set of questions; based on the responses, new prompts arise.

Chris Hulleman

Hulleman is a professor of education and public policy, and the founder of Motivate Lab. He wants to help learners of all varieties pursue their interests and live up to their potential. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“It’s living and breathing,” Hulleman said of the repository, which includes measurement tools to chart student growth. 

This is the second grant award, meant to help the project spread in scale. The first award established proof of concept for the measurement tool, he said. 

Catherine Bradshaw, senior associate dean for research at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, said the toolkit project is a brilliant way to help keep students on a path they choose.

“At the Ed School, we study and share successful approaches to ensuring all learners succeed,” Bradshaw said. “The Motivate Lab is doing some of that really important work.”

The research will continue until January 2025. Hulleman hopes that with 30 participating institutions, it has the potential to reach 250,000 students. 

“Will people outside our network use it?” he asked aloud. “I hope so, though we still need to figure out how to track that at a national level.”

Media Contact

Eric Williamson

Communications Manager School of Engineering and Applied Science