Only 21% of low-income, first-generation college students earn a college degree within 6 years of enrolling in school, according to a 2019 report.
One reason behind this sobering fact? There’s a strong correlation between income and academic performance. Research shows that a student’s ability to pay for the total cost of college — including basic living expenses, textbooks, lab fees, housing deposits, and other non-tuition-related costs — is directly connected to their ability to complete their degree.
For students facing college expenses that regularly exceed available income and resources, pursuing post-secondary education is simply not financially feasible.
What is a financially vulnerable student?
A student who is financially vulnerable will be unable to consistently meet financial obligations, feel secure in their financial futures, and make choices that help them realize their goals. Unlike students who possess a financial cushion, these low-income students are likely to experience an ongoing struggle to make ends meet. This means that an otherwise minor setback (e.g. a medical bill or flat tire) can quickly spiral into an all-out financial emergency that thwarts their ability to graduate.
According to research by Temple University faculty, nearly one-third of all undergraduate students live in a low-income situation. Importantly, while anyone can be considered low-income, there are a few student types that fall into the category more than others:
So how can your institution take action to address the persistent barriers undermining your financially vulnerable students’ odds of success?
7 strategies for your college to support low-income students
To help financially vulnerable students fight insecurities and graduate, your institution should consider implementing these strategies:
- Connect students with community resources: To help your students make ends meet, publish information about the benefits, services, and resources that may be available in the community where your college is located. This can include information around: food stamp eligibility, food bank locations, eligibility for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, Medicaid enrollment, and low-cost and no-cost health centers (both physical and mental).
- Enhance the visibility of financial aid and work-study jobs: Financial aid and scholarships enable low-income students to afford college. However, students are sometimes unaware of work-study opportunities, loans, and grants that can help them meet unexpected costs. Make it easy for your students to find these opportunities.
- Offer federal student loans: Federal student loans are one of the safest forms of debt for students. Colleges that do not offer federal loans often force low-income students to work more at the expense of their studies, or take on costlier forms of debt, like private loans and credit cards.
- Establish academic retention programs: Financially vulnerable students often have external circumstances that may make it more difficult for them to succeed academically. This means that they may need personalized academic support to reach graduation. To help students navigate and tackle barriers related to income, your institution can offer academic advisors, skill centers, and tutors.
- Break down administrative silos between student affairs and financial aid offices: Traditionally, financial aid and student affairs operate at different parts of the student lifecycle. This means that neither group sees the full picture of a student’s challenges or the opportunities to provide support. By taking steps to break these silos, your college can better help students holistically and provide the wraparound services they need to thrive.
- Make “emergency funds” (mini-grants) available: Students often must discontinue their studies when they’re unable to pay certain expenses. These expenses can include fees for books, computer labs, supplies, and other surcharges imposed by the institution beyond tuition and room and board, or basic living needs. Your institution can establish an emergency fund to cover certain costs and fees so students can continue their degrees when a financial crisis hits.
- Re-examine your institutional debts: Institutional debts, which include fees, fines, and unpaid charges a student owes your college, can create insurmountable financial challenges for students already struggling to cover basic living costs. Oftentimes, these institutional debts may prevent students from continuing their education. Your college should take an audit of its penalties, make sure students have a viable way to make good on their past-due balances, and examine when a student will be prevented from registering for courses, re-enrolling, and obtaining a transcript.
Prioritize low-income students’ success at your college
Overall, financially vulnerable students face a wide range of non-academic pressures that challenge their ability to pursue post-secondary education.
By actively supporting these students with resources and programs that help fight insecurity when it comes to food, clothing, housing, and tuition, all of your students will be much more likely to graduate and succeed in life.
Are you an administrator? Get in touch with us at email@example.com to learn more about how you can bring equitable emergency aid to your institution today.
Are you a student? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or click the blue bubble in the bottom-right corner of edquity.co for assistance.