Access to Education

Challenge Grant Program Inspires and Rewards Student Academic Success

Written By Debbie Black

Challenge Grant Program Inspires and Rewards Student Academic Success Feature Image

“‘Strive for excellence, not perfection,’ because I am human and I need to practice self-compassion as much as I show compassion for others.” Jason Naki, ’20

Many of today’s students face food or housing insecurity, or simply confront a difficult chapter in their lives. These hardships can cause grades to slip which can result in a loss of financial aid. According to a 2016 report by education consulting firm EAB, high-performing college students with just a $1,000-$1,500 decrease in financial aid are more likely to drop out of school. Of more than 40,000 students analyzed in the study, those with grade point averages above 3.0 were 2.5% more likely to drop out of school than those with little or no change in aid. For Seattle U students in this position, a boost of $1,000 per quarter, paired with access to cross-campus support can mean the difference between delaying or discontinuing their education and graduating.

Even before the EAB report findings were released, a pattern emerged among successful second or third year Seattle U students who did not return to complete their degree. In a search for the right recipe to help promising students continue to be successful and stay in school, Institutional Research and Student Financial Services created Challenge Grants, a wrap-around student persistence program unique to Seattle University.

“In 2014, we determined that students who earn a 3.0 their very first term at Seattle U are more likely to be successful here,” says Joelle Pretty, assistant provost for Student Academic Engagement. “Beginning in 2015, students eligible for a Challenge Grant received a letter in early September stating if they achieved a 3.0 in their first quarter, we would give them an additional $1,000 for winter quarter, and if they kept a 3.0 throughout winter quarter, we would give them an additional $1,000 for spring. If they maintained that 3.0 through the end of their first year, the scholarship would be permanently added to their financial aid package. The grants are designed to challenge students to do their best academically, and to help them stay in school.”

Challenge Grants are need-based and available to both first-time-in-college and transfer students. Most recipients are in what Pretty refers to as the “murky middle.” Their grades upon entering Seattle U are on the lower end, though not below an established threshold for success. They are seen as having the potential to succeed if they utilize the supports available to them on campus.

“When I inherited the Challenge Grant program in 2018, however,” Pretty says, “plenty of students were not making the GPA threshold to receive a Challenge Grant. Of a total 84 eligible students that year, 42 students received a Challenge Grant. My colleagues in the Office of Student Academic Persistence, which I oversee, concurred with me that we could better support students if we directly explained to them the resources available on campus and encouraged them to access these resources early on.”

Challenge Grant-eligible students now attend a welcome orientation, and a student persistence specialist follows-up afterwards to determine what each student needs to be successful. Students utilize a self-assessment tool to identify how and when they study, how they prepare for tests, their motivation for being in school and their goals. Student persistence specialists debrief the results with each student and identify their strengths and areas needing improvement, such as time management skills and approaches to studying. They provide helpful suggestions and point students to on-campus resources including tutoring services, additional one-on-one consultations with student persistence specialists, study groups and different workshops for student success.

“I remember themes talked about in the first Challenge Grant workshop I attended last year, which was very helpful in providing tools for success,” says Jason Naki, a senior in the nursing program and Challenge Grant recipient. “This includes keeping a weekly organizer and mapping out every hour. I map out self-care time too, to remind myself this is also important for achieving good grades. I have used the tutoring services and when I find myself really bogged down, I seek help from my instructors or fellow successful students that I wish to emulate. Finally, I keep in mind a quote an instructor gave during lecture, ‘Strive for excellence, not perfection,’ because I am human and I need to practice self-compassion as much as I show compassion for others. “

Pretty is continuously looking for ways to better help students be successful. The Office of Institutional Research now says a 2.75 GPA is a good predictor of success in college, so she is lobbying to have the GPA requirement for Challenge Grants lowered from 3.0 to 2.75.

“We feel this would increase the number of students we are reaching,” she says, “and we know that small, incremental investments in student success combined with a system of supports can make a difference between students finishing their education and dropping out of school.”  

Pretty’s team is also looking at ways to inspire rather than mandate students to learn about all the resources available to them early on, so they don’t lose out on the Challenge Grant opportunity. One idea under consideration is working with students from previous Challenge Grant cohorts who can speak about how these resources have helped them to be successful.

“In line with Seattle University’s mission,” Pretty says, “we’re trying to identify students who for whatever reason haven’t had the kinds of opportunities that would enable them to be successful, and support them in a way that their innate skills and abilities come out and they can flourish.”

If you would like to impact student success, Challenge Grants present an opportunity to do so through gifts of any size. To learn more, contact Joelle Pretty,