by Daniela Saucedo
December 22, 2020
The high cost of tuition at public and private 4-year academic institutions is a hot topic in national media today. However, students face many financial barriers to degree completion introduced by expenses that aren’t fully covered by their financial aid packages.1 Colleges can support students to graduate by offering them financial supports that go beyond financial aid.
Living expenses as well as the cost of textbooks and supplies impact college persistence rates, especially amongst low-income students.
- One third of colleges underestimate living expenses, which decreases student retention, especially for students from low-income backgrounds.2 For students attending public colleges in their home state, room and board is the largest expense, surpassing tuition and fees.3 While an exact measure of the prevalence of food insecurity among college students is limited, research indicates that food insecurity among college students ranges from 9 to well over 50%.4 College students who experience food insecurity may also experience decreased academic performance, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and other negative mental health effects.5
- In addition to living expenses, textbooks and supplies are another large expense for college students that are not always fully covered by financial aid. Full-time students at 2-year and 4-year public institutions can expect to pay almost $900 on average each year for books and supplies. This equates to about 72 and 26% of the cost of tuition at 2-year and 4-year public institutions respectively.6
Low- and middle-income students are more likely to work part- or full-time to help cover these expenses, which can lead to students enrolling in college part-time and taking longer to earn a degree. Working extensive hours in college can adversely affect student performance and progress toward degree completion. 7 Further, students, especially low-income students, who start college with a lower course load (e.g. due to work commitments) are less likely to graduate. These financial barriers persist beyond the first year, indicating the need for continuous institutional support throughout a student’s college tenure.
Financial Support Strategies
Institutions can offer tangible resources to students to offset financial barriers toward degree completion that students face post-matriculation:
- Student Food Pantries: On campus food pantries can help alleviate food insecurity by providing non-perishables, fresh produce, and even some basic toiletries. Check out the College & University Food Bank Alliance for resources on how to start one at your institution.
- Open Educational Resources: Schools can help alleviate the burden of textbook costs by supporting instructors’ use of openly licensed materials. Learn more from the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources.
- Emergency Aid Funds: Emergency financial aid can help students recover from unexpected financial difficulties that would otherwise derail their academic trajectory. As an example, read about the Dreamkeepers and Angel Fund Emergency Financial Aid Program.
Institutional financial aid packages typically do not provide adequate financial stability for low-income students; once these students have enrolled and received their financial aid awards, schools must take a more holistic approach in supporting them toward graduation.8 By enacting support strategies that target financial wellness throughout the student’s academic journey, institutions can offset these persistent and oft-neglected barriers toward degree completion.
The additional blog posts in this series delve into successful strategies that address barriers related to each of the following non-academic dimensions:
- Part 1—An Overview
- Part 2—Financial Barriers
- Part 3—Institutional Knowledge Required to Navigate Higher Education Systems
- Part 4—Academic Self-Efficacy
2 Kelchen, R., Goldrick-Rab, S., & Hosch, B. (2015). The costs of college attendance: Trends, variation, and accuracy in institutional living cost allowances. The Journal of Higher Education, 88(6), 947-971. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.689.2259&rep=rep1&type=pdf
3 Urban Institute. (2020, March 12). Understanding college affordability: Prices and expenses. http://collegeaffordability.urban.org/prices-and-expenses/student-budgets/#/total_cost_of_attendance
4 Larin, K. (2018). Food insecurity: Better information could help eligible college students access federal food assistance benefits. Report to congressional requesters. U.S. Government Accountability Office. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED594848.pdf
5 Larin, K. (2018). Food insecurity: Better information could help eligible college students access federal food assistance benefits. Report to congressional requesters. U.S. Government Accountability Office. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED594848.pdf
6 U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2005). College Textbooks: Enhanced offerings appear to drive recent price increases. Report to Congressional Requesters. US Government Accountability Office. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED497038.pdf
7 Welbeck, R., Diamond, J., Mayer, A., & Richburg-Hayes, L. (2014). Piecing together the college affordability puzzle: Student characteristics and patterns of (un)affordability. MDRC. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED545465.pdf
8 Lumina Foundation. (2018). Beyond financial aid: How colleges can strengthen the financial stability of low-income students and improve student outcomes. Lumina Foundation. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED588519.pdf
Topics: Access and equity Community colleges First-generation college students Low income Opportunity youth Transition to postsecondary