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A first-of-its-kind study found that financial aid may be most helpful to the Wisconsin college students who are the least likely to otherwise succeed.

For the last three years, UW-Madison professors Sara Goldrick-Rab and Douglas Harris followed a group of students who received grant money from the Fund for Wisconsin Scholars program.

The program was created through a $175 million donation by John and Tashia Morgridge, providing a $3,500-a-year grant to some first-time, full-time students enrolled in the University of Wisconsin System.

In 2008, 600 students were chosen to receive the grant out of 3,000 eligible students. The students must be eligible for the federal Pell Grant. Pell Grants are awarded to a student based on his or her family’s income and assets, typically about $40,000 a year or less.

Goldrick-Rab and Harris tracked data from the 600 students who received Morgridge grants, plus 900 eligible non-recipients.

In initial results, they found that the most disadvantaged group of students were more likely to stay in college if they received the Morgridge grant, compared to those who did not.

“These are students who are predominantly first generation, and with predominantly lower ACT scores,” Goldrick-Rab said. “What we see is if they were awarded a grant, their chance of persisting jumped from 55 to 72 percent.”

However, the money did not appear to have as much of an effect on students who entered college with a higher probability of succeeding — those with higher test scores and parents with bachelor’s degrees.

The study also found that students with the grant accrued nearly $2,000 less debt over the first two years of college.

Students who got the grant money tended to take more credits than students who did not, which could allow them to graduate more quickly, Goldrick-Rab said.

Goldrick-Rab, Harris and co-authors James Benson and Robert Kelchen will discuss their results at 8 a.m. Friday in UW-Madison’s Education Building at a conference on financial aid called “Affordability and College Attainment in Wisconsin Public Higher Education.”

The study is supported by UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education and the Institute for Research on Poverty.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation and the Spencer Foundation provided funding for the research.