Financial trauma is a secret scourge for many American college students. While three-quarters of students report moderate to high financial stress and more than half experience food or housing insecurity, shame and fear related to financial difficulties prevent many from seeking help. In the college context, this can lead to decreased academic performance and even increased drop-out rates. In fact, about three million students a year leave college because of a financial emergency costing $500 or less.
Student affairs and financial aid professionals—as well as other support staff and faculty—can play a significant role in helping students manage their financial stressors and remain enrolled. However, to do so, they must be equipped to communicate effectively with students actively experiencing trauma.
To effectively address student financial need, higher ed professionals need to understand the serious challenges students are facing. Often, assumptions about students’ demographics and circumstances lead to misunderstandings and inadequate communication. This is compounded by the shame that students may feel around their financial situations.
Students, especially those with nontraditional backgrounds, are often dealing with far more complex challenges than stadd realize. For example, they may not only lack family support, but also be supporting families of their own. In addition, adult learners do not have access to all of the grants and loans that are available to new high school graduates. Edquity Partner Student Success Manager Mary Sherman notes that these challenges are particularly acute for students of color and other marginalized groups, who are more likely to lack financial safety nets due to the effects of systemic discrimination and exclusion.
As Edquity Student Success Representative Mary Lewis explains, common causes of financial trauma include the loss of a partner or relative, illness or caregiving responsibilities, loss of employment, unexpected vehicle repairs, changes to financial aid awards, or unaffordable childcare.
Danté Hutchinson, another student success representative, adds that “Often, when a student is facing financial constraints, any unexpected expense can push them beyond their current limitations, causing them to have to reduce or eliminate some of their basic needs in order to proceed. The stress is compounded every time another challenge arises,” he says, “each jeopardizing the student’s ability to complete their education.”
Even in dire circumstances, Lewis says, “students may downplay or minimize the financial trauma they’re experiencing, which can lead to their assumption that they aren’t eligible for help or resources.”
Sherman adds that many students are hesitant to ask for help, often expressing their belief that they don’t deserve assistance because others have it worse. In reality, less than half of eligible college students apply for SNAP, pointing to significant untapped resources.
The complex financial factors that impact students, and the emotions and fears they raise, make it essential for professionals to communicate with students in a compassionate, trauma-informed fashion. Key tips include:
Often, students don’t access available emergency aid because they aren’t aware that it exists or don’t realize that they qualify. Since students in distress may be too overwhelmed to explore their options, it’s important to build knowledge of available resources before students are in a dire financial situation. Hutchinson suggests that student affairs and financial aid teams display information about emergency services prominently on their websites and student portals, and also develop communication touchpoints about the resources during the admissions process and at critical points throughout each semester.
As Lewis notes, it’s also important to raise awareness around what financial trauma looks like. “Financial distress is a broad spectrum,” she explains. “Sharing relatable content with students can help them feel more comfortable reaching out for help with their unique circumstances.”
Many students in financial distress are skeptical of student services professionals, especially if they have not interacted with them or their departments before. If a student has only interacted with school financial services in the context of receiving and paying bills, they may assume the school is only concerned with getting its tuition payments—especially if the student has struggled to pay on time. Student affairs and financial aid professionals must clearly communicate that their role is not to obtain payment but to provide support to ensure the student can remain enrolled and meet their basic needs.
As Hutchinson explains, “It takes a delicate approach in order to create an environment in which students feel comfortable illustrating their situation when they are in severe need.”
While it’s important to obtain baseline information about a student’s situation in order to help them, professionals should refrain from prying into the student’s personal circumstances. Lewis says, “When greeting a student, I like to ask “how can I help” because it’s an open-ended question. In my experience, students who feel comfortable sharing details about their situation will do so.”
In some circumstances, of course, careful follow-up is needed. “In the event that a student is seeking resources but hasn’t provided enough information around their areas of need, I do think it’s appropriate to ask students if they feel comfortable to share more about the challenges they’re facing to help them find the appropriate resources or channels to receive help,” adds Lewis.
Sherman notes that ethical considerations must always be at the forefront of any discussion, cautioning professionals to avoid asking students to relive their trauma. “What is most important is that the student feels comfortable asking for assistance, and they are treated with respect and dignity when doing so,” she explains.
Students in financial distress need solutions within days, not weeks. Prompt communication and clear processes can provide both reassurance and real solutions.
“Providing them with an outline of the entire process empowers them to plan ahead, which is a freedom that is often overlooked,” says Hutchinson. When students apply for emergency aid, for example, they should be given a clear timeline on when they can expect a decision and when aid will be delivered and regularly updated on their application’s progress.
As Sherman points out, many students in financial distress have previously experienced financial stigma or equate asking for help with a loss of control over one’s life. Thus, the language that practitioners use when communicating with students can have a major impact. “It is absolutely critical to move away from oppressive language such as “poor students”, and move toward language that illuminates the student before their situation, such as ‘student experiencing poverty,’” she explains. “This small change can have a major impact on student wellbeing.”
For student affairs and financial aid professionals, a compassionate, team-oriented approach and clearly defined processes can go a long way toward improving student support. Ultimately, as Lewis says, the central goal when working with students in financial distress should be “reassuring students they are not alone and that there are credible resources available to help.”