The Economics
of Completion

Helping low-income and underserved students complete college and be ready for employment has been a core goal of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation since our start in 1999.

Students who finish college do better in life than those who don’t. They find better jobs, they earn higher incomes, and they are able to contribute more to their families and communities.

But before they graduate, these students will face many new challenges—academic, financial, and personal. For low-income and first-generation students, that can be a tremendous struggle. The struggle is so great, in fact, that research shows they are more likely to leave college without a degree than with one.

What can be done to support these students? A lot.

Financial aid is a common—and sorely needed—form of support. But at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, we’ve found that the ideal approach to student success includes much more than money.

It’s an approach rooted in evidence, backed by evaluation, and refined over more than a decade in the field. It’s based on supporting students comprehensively and continually, through every year of college. And it has proven to work very, very well.

The approach is modeled in two scholarship programs that we run in two very different contexts: the Dell Scholars Program, in the United States, and Dell Young Leaders program, in South Africa. Our students have achieved excellent results with both programs—which we share here to show that all students, everywhere, have a path to success.

Organizations that take it upon themselves to understand that path, and walk alongside students as they navigate it, contribute to something truly impactful to our world.


Denice Carpenter A former Dell Scholar Ambassador, graduate of The University of Texas at Austin and mother of 2, Denice Carpenter was raised in Fort Worth, Texas. While pursuing her master’s degree in social work, she had the privilege of serving as an AmeriCorps member with Communities in Schools of Central Texas.
Maphuti Setati Maphuti is a Dell Young Leader from the rural South African village of Ga-Mamadila who, soon after university graduation, applied his computer science skills to the wellbeing of others. He currently works as a senior technical officer for a leading telecommunications company.

Students like Maphuti and Denice grow up accustomed to adversity. It’s what motivates them to persist through college and seek a brighter future.

But adversity is persistent too. Rather than pausing while students pursue their degrees, the stresses of life are compounded by the stresses of higher education. Maintaining your GPA is a hard-enough task on its own. It’s unfathomably harder when you’re working 20 hours a week, feeling every day like you don’t belong on campus or juggling family responsibilities.

In our experience, helping students overcome this adversity depends on four forms of ongoing support: financial, academic, psychosocial, and professional. These are the resources most important for low-income and first-generation students to succeed. And they comprise the basis of Dell Young Leaders and the Dell Scholars Program.

Financial aid—including funds, as well as counseling to improve financial literacy—helps students who otherwise can’t pay for tuition, books, accommodation, food, and other necessities. Academic support helps students meet the higher demands of classwork and tests they encounter in college. Psychosocial support helps students adjust to life in a completely new environment. And professional support helps students transition from college into the kinds of careers that make their persistence pay off.

In the end, providing these four resources depends on one thing: knowing your students. In both of our college success programs, our first priority is to build and maintain a complete picture of who our students are, where they come from, where they want to go, and what might stand in their way.

When a student takes on additional shifts at work, falls behind in class, or suffers a heavy personal set back of some kind, we’ll notice. And then we can reach out in the right way—whether that’s connecting them with a school or community resource that can help, or simply offering a sympathetic ear.

It’s unfathomably harder when you’re working 20 hours a week, feeling every day like you don’t belong on campus or caring for a sick child.

This kind of personal attention makes a monumental difference. One Dell Young Leader at the University of Pretoria said it was like having an extended family, plus a whole fleet of specialized assistants: “I have a personal psychologist, a personal lawyer, and I have a personal employment expert—and I have never had that before.”

The amazing thing is, it doesn’t require an enormous staff to provide that level of support. Currently, our roster of 531 Dell Young Leaders is served by a staff of only 6. In the U.S., a staff of 4 is able to support 1,600 Dell Scholars.

You don’t need an army to help students reach the finish line. You need knowledge enabled by technology. By knowing our students, we’re able to be there for them every step of the way.

When Denice and Maphuti talk about graduation, the pride in their words and faces is unmistakable. It’s the satisfaction of a job well done, but also the foundation of all the great things they’ll accomplish in the future. Graduation is the first of many successes.

That’s why we put so much energy into finding an approach that works. If we found that our approach didn’t help students graduate at better rates than their peers, we’d change the approach and try again. What we’ve learned is that wraparound support really does make a difference—a big one—in ensuring that students excel.

Of all university students in South Africa, barely half finish their studies within five years, and only a third of students on financial aid make it to graduation. For Dell Young Leaders, the rate is 85 percent. That is 32 percentage points above the national average for all students, and a full 53 percentage points above the average for students receiving financial aid.

The results in the U.S. are similar. Seventy-eight percent of Dell Scholars get their bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to roughly 20 percent for other low-income students. It’s a remarkable swing: Outside our program, only one in five low-income students graduates within six years. Within our program, only one in five doesn’t graduate.

"More Than Money" Matters for Degrees

32%     Low-Income Students
85%     Dell Young Leaders
19%     Low-Income Students
78%     Dell Scholars

Wraparound support clearly has an impact. One interesting fact about that impact is that it increases every year. According to a recent study, Dell Scholars and their peers finish the first year of higher education at about the same rate. But when it comes to the second year, Dell Scholars prove more successful at finishing. And from there the gap gets wider and wider.

This underlines the fact that higher education is a marathon, not a sprint. The verb we use to describe advancing from one year to the next—to persist—is very telling. It means “to continue in spite of difficulty.” Without the necessary supports, it gets harder and harder for low-income and first-generation students to do that. When they have the right resources, persisting may still be a challenge, but it’s a much more surmountable one.

Maphuti and Denice emerged from college with more skills, more knowledge, more experience, and more credentials than they had before. And they can draw on these gains throughout their careers. That, in a word, is impact.

According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, a college graduate in the United States will earn approximately $1 million more over his or her lifetime than a high school graduate and is half as likely to experience unemployment.

Unemployment in South Africa is a persistent problem, standing higher today than it’s been in over a decade. A university degree does not guarantee a job—but the wraparound support offered to Dell Young Leaders, including a focus on job placement, has a perfect record so far: Since the program’s launch, in 2010, 100 percent of Dell Young Leaders have been hired directly after graduation or have gone on to further study.

Dell Young Leaders: Continuing Success

Dell Scholars: Continuing Success

Not only that, but they’re hired by top-tier companies. Employed degree holders in South Africa have much higher lifetime earnings than employees without degrees—about R24 million compared to R4 million—and Dell Young Leaders do even better. Compared to other employed graduates, their starting salaries are 25 percent higher, and they’re projected to earn R3 million more over the course of their lives. Many employers have told us that the reason they hire Dell Young Leaders is because they know they’re getting someone mature, motivated, and resilient—qualities that will strengthen their workforce and benefit their business.

Though our approach extends beyond financial support, money does have an impact, even after college. Compared to similar students, Dell Scholars are 27 percent less likely to take on federal loans—and, therefore, the years of debt that go along with them. This is in large part due to the way that our scholarship money is disbursed. Unlike some scholarships, Dell Scholar funds are awarded in increments, because we learned that lump sums sometimes disqualify students from other aid they depend on. Also, our funds are not tied to specific uses. We help them decide where the money will be most effective—tuition, room and board, books, even paying down other loans. This helps them get the most out each dollar, and also gives them valuable practice in managing money and improving their financial literacy.

With higher earnings and less debt, students can immediately start investing in their futures—and in others.

It’s hard to quantify all the benefits that come from graduating. Denice put it best when she described the life she might have had: Without her degree, she would be dependent on others. Today, not only is she self-sufficient, but she’s also a source of growth and support for other people.

College graduates benefit their families by providing for them directly, and they benefit their communities by paying taxes, joining organizations, and serving as role models. Most Dell Young Leaders grew up depending on monthly government social grants, but after graduation they’re fully employed, sharing their success with an average of five other people in their households. For friends and neighbors, they set a precedent—a new standard for what’s possible—which builds immense social capital and potential in communities that have previously been excluded from the labor market.

College graduates in both South Africa and the U.S. have higher rates of civic participation, including voting and volunteerism, compared to non-degree holders. They rely less on public assistance programs and contribute more to the public good through their taxes. In South Africa, Dell Young Leaders enrolled from 2010-2020 are projected to contribute R1 billion more in income tax over their lifetimes compared to similar students not in the program.

What the numbers can’t express is that the students in our programs truly care about giving back. They still feel connected to the places they come from, and they’re invested in making them better. Many, like Maphuti and Denice, want to make it their life’s work.

The economics of college completion prove that it is an investment worth making. Even if all it achieves is to help students get their degrees, it is still worth it. But it does so much more than that.

It enables people to break cycles of poverty. It empowers them to earn, produce, contribute, and share. It enriches their families and communities. It has the kind of impact every socially active organization or entrepreneur strives to have in the world: lasting and far-reaching.

Through the Dell Scholars Program and Dell Young Leaders program, we have developed an approach that shows how to help low-income and first-generation college students earn their degrees at dramatically higher rates than the norm. We encourage organizations and individuals around the world to explore this approach. Discover the productive resources necessary for students to succeed. Know your students. And walk with them along the way to ensure they graduate and head off into the world to make it better.

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