07/23/2014 06:24 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2014

Margo Wright: How an App Could Help Low-Income College Students Graduate

Nearly 90 percent of the 5 million people striving to be the first in their family to earn a college degree will never graduate. Many of those students rely on student loans so they end up with a crippling debt and nothing to show for it. Can a mobile application help?

Over the past two months, my team at Significance Labs has investigated how and why first generation community college students in New York City start to run into trouble. We confirmed that there are a plethora of financial, academic, social and cultural barriers which prevent first generation students from earning a degree. What we did not expect was that financial aid can become an obstacle too.

Attending college can be surprisingly affordable even for students from low-income families. Between the Pell Grant and New York State Tuition Assistance Grant (TAP), 58 percent of students who attend City of New York (CUNY) colleges pay no tuition.

Sandra is a single mother who registered for an associate's degree in Criminal Justice while supporting her daughter and herself by working at the Gap. In her second year, when her daughter was two-years-old, Sandra couldn't find affordable childcare. There was no good childcare program on campus, she couldn't get a government voucher to cover the cost of external childcare and she couldn't afford to pay for that childcare herself.

"It was a financial burden and a struggle," she says, "so I decided that I would rather help my daughter learn and grow and teach her." Sandra simply stopped going to classes.

Little did she know that since she was still registered as a student, financial aid was still paying for those classes. She ended up owing the school $1791.67, a figure which, three years later she can still quote exactly. "I only found out when I registered for summer classes and they said you have to pay," she says.

Would she still have dropped out if she had known she would end up in debt? "I would have made a way," she says. "$1700 is a lot of money. $1791.67! I will never forget it." A mobile application tracking attendance could notice that a student like Sandra is missing classes and send her a notification pointing out that she may have to repay financial aid.

We found that students do not understand the complex federal, state and institutional regulations governing academic standing and financial aid eligibility. Students who don't complete enough credits or achieve high enough grades become ineligible for state grant aid. Students who drop too many classes won't meet the federal Satisfactory Academic Progress requirements and therefore can't get financial aid.

Students who are in danger of losing financial aid can be kept on track if they receive the right information at the right time. We have found that students who have already lost financial aid are highly motivated to regain it but are confused about how to do so.

We believe that if students are presented with a clear set of goals for credits and grades and are given a step by step path to achieving them, they will make better choices and stay on track for graduation. This summer, we are building a mobile app to do just that.