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Why federal financial aid isn’t enough for college students

May 16, 2017

What’s more personal than money? The dollar bill, dinero, dough, or green—no matter what you call it, money (or the lack of it) can make your life great, manageable, or downright tough. As one who has experienced the highs and lows of cash, I’ve seen how finances can cause people to withdraw from life or, on the flipside, find creative ways to get the resources they need.

Consider two students: Cassidy, 21, is an aspiring college graduate and young mother residing in Washington, D.C. She is exhausted from the demands of balancing school, work, mounting bills, and a recent family death, and decides to withdraw from community college three weeks into her third semester. Pete, 37, is a displaced worker, father of three, and student in rural Pennsylvania. He utilizes food stamps, bus passes, and church donations to cover necessities, and will graduate this month with an associate’s degree. Both individuals struggled to remain engaged in their education while managing the realities of low-income life, but Pete makes it to the finish line by taking advantage of personal networks and available resources. This type of support is crucial, but often overlooked in national conversations about financial aid.

For years, college leaders have been focused on federal funds, such as Pell grants. To be sure, Pell grants are incredibly important for low-income students who rely on the funds to cover tuition and fees. However, federal funding has dominated the mindshare of college leaders, crowding out other forms of non-traditional aid. According to a survey by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), 87% of community college administrators consider low FAFSA application rates the biggest barrier to student aid.

According to the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCSSE) report, Making Ends Meet, students, however, state there are many other urgent needs that stand in their way of success. To support non-traditional students, colleges must provide non-traditional support structures and mechanisms. Below is an examination of what low-income students need beyond federal tuition assistance.

The hidden costs of college

The Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) has estimated that the average community college student has upwards of $17,000 annually of education expenses beyond tuition, such as rent, food, transportation, textbooks, and other fees. When the cost of college is that much more than tuition, at-risk students don’t just eat ramen, they often don’t eat at all. According to the Wisconsin HOPE Lab’s latest study, Hungry and Homeless in College, two-thirds of community college students are unable to afford basic necessities. Beyond the obvious personal ramifications, these struggles also impact students’ academic lives; hungry and homeless students disproportionately stop out or dropout compared to those students who basic needs are met.

For many college administrators, these truths can be hard to swallow. Very few community colleges are engaging in partnership programs that support those with housing challenges and food insecurity in their communities, though the number is growing as noted in this recent Community College Daily article. In research conversations with college leaders across the country, a small but vocal minority argued that when they were poor students, they made ends meet without extra assistance from the college or university they attended. While this may be true, students suffering from hunger and homelessness rarely have a network of family and friends willing or able to help them meet basic needs. Institutional interventions may be the last and only hope to help a student facing such situations reach graduation.

Financial distress leading to cognitive depletion

Financial distress often manifests as physical, emotional, and academic distress. Consider this example from the World Bank 2015 World Development Report: Researchers studied a group of sugar cane farmers in India who receive their income once a year during the harvest. The period immediately before the harvest is incredibly stressful—farmers are much more likely to hold loans, face financial insecurity, and be reminded of their poverty daily. In contrast, the period after harvest is much more stable, when farmers paid down their debts and can spend money on daily necessities.

Seeking to understand the effects of poverty on cognitive function, World Bank researchers administered simple tests and found that the difference in cognitive performance among the same group of famers before and after the harvest (or in high-poverty and low-poverty states, respectively) was 10 IQ points. For context, this is about the same difference in IQ points between someone who has slept the night before and someone who’s been awake for over 24 hours—a startling difference demonstrating just the toll financial distress has on a person’s ability to think clearly and engage with daily tasks.

This phenomenon, known as cognitive depletion, helps explain why students suffering from financial insecurity often exhibit worrying academic behaviors—frequent absences, rapid mood swings, and declining grades. These struggles can exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety, and send students in droves to academic advisors and counseling centers across campus. Unfortunately, these offices are primarily intended to manage career advice and registration issues, presenting a clear need for leaders to address financial matters before they affect students in ways the college cannot adequately support.

Get wise to student financial needs at your college

Consider taking these steps to discover your students’ needs and build out the appropriate supports:

1. Understand financially distressed students’ lives at your institution by conducting focus groups with students from a variety of backgrounds. Access our focus group guide to start planning your own research strategy 

2. Introduce a range of non-academic student services: Based on the outcomes of the student focus groups, invest in on-campus resources to meet stated needs. There are many examples of community colleges setting up food pantriesdaycare centershousing assistance partnerships, or healthy food options.

3. Survey individual students to understand their personal financial and non-academic needs, and share that with assigned advisors, who can discuss during one-on-one meetings and help students connect to the right resources. Learn how EAB’s Navigate platform identifies student needs during onboarding 

4. Normalize student financial needs with a behavioral economic strategy called descriptive social norming, in which students are assured they are not alone in utilizing on-campus services (i.e. 82% of students receive financial assistance at our college). Read more about behavioral economics in higher education 

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