Helping Students Persist and Graduate: Emily White


The invisible barriers and the assumptions we make

Emily White, Senior Product Manager

For the majority of students who don’t have the privilege of their families fully supporting their college education, one of their first tasks is applying for financial aid. But all of this presupposes you can actually fill out the FAFSA, which is not an option for a large number of students. The U.S. Department of Education requires you to supply your parents’ financial information to qualify for financial aid until you turn 24. There are many circumstances where this is not possible (e.g., DACA recipients, students who can’t get in touch with their family). In my case, one of my parents was homeless and not completing tax information.

Unless I wanted to join the military, get married, or have a child, I knew I couldn’t get financial aid before I turned 24.

After I started community college for the second time, I carefully timed my two-year graduation because I wouldn’t be able to afford transferring to a four-year institution until then. I was lucky to be able to get a great scholarship and graduate a few months before I turned 27.

It’s important to challenge our assumptions. So many of the ideas of who students are and what they are dealing with are narrow and reductive. In the era of big data, there’s a temptation to think we can explain or understand everything about the student experience, but there is still so much we don’t know about any individual. As a product designer for EAB’s student success platform Navigate, my goal is to help student success professionals use data to create context that helps them have more meaningful interactions with students, whether it’s an intervention at scale (such as a text message campaign) or in a one-on-one conversation. But I’m also responsible for creating guardrails to ensure that data are not used to misconstrue a student’s motivations or behavior.

If we are willing to consider equity more broadly, we can dare to imagine a radically different future. As we create better methods to collect and report on behavioral data, we should start with the big questions and decisions we need to make, and determine how to get the info we need to make the substantive changes that will lead to the future we want to see.

I wish someone would have told me:

  • That there was an option for a financial aid appeal. However, even if I had known, most schools will not grant an appeal, and the process to obtain one is complex. Financial aid offices can turn you down for any reason, and don’t have to record any data around it, limiting the ability of institution to understand how students may be impacted from an equity standpoint. I was lucky and privileged! I had so many friends with other circumstances who lost financial aid or couldn’t receive it and weren’t able to earn any credential as a result.
  • I also wish I would have read this Chronicle of Higher Education article.


Navigate is a comprehensive student success management system that supports more than 2.5 million students from enrollment to graduation and beyond. Learn how Navigate partners use the platform to surface unseen equity gaps.

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