Student Voices: Financial Supports Key to College Persistence, Completion

This is the first installment of our Student Voices series, which will feature a new student story every week in September.These powerful testimonials from real students speak to the need for a comprehensive reform of the Higher Education Act that provides greater supports and well-structured financial aid to meet the changing needs of today’s students.

By Katherine Saunders

Now more than ever, some form of postsecondary education is key to economic mobility and the gateway to the middle class. But despite the increasing demand for postsecondary credentials, the rising cost of college is putting it further out of reach for many low-income students.  

The price tag on a college education has risen dramatically over the last three decades, increasing nearly four times faster than median family income and two-and-a-half times faster than Pell grants. Today, unmet need—the share of college costs not covered by financial aid or what a family is expected to contribute—averages $6,000 and can be as high as $10,000 for the lowest-income community college students.  

At the same time, the face of higher education is changing. The “traditional” full-time student entering a four-year college or university right out of high school is no longer the norm. Fifty-one percent of undergraduate students are independent, 41 percent work more than 20 hours per week, and 26 percent are parents.

Jennifer[1]—a first-generation, full-time, student-parent at a community and technical college in southern Minnesota—is a prime example of the challenges that today’s students face. Her education was paid for with a combination of federal, state, and private sources; these included a Pell Grant, scholarships, a state grant for low- and moderate-income students, work-study, and loans. She also qualified for and received public benefits, such as housing assistance, medical assistance, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and child care assistance for her two children. In addition to these financial supports, Jennifer also worked at an assisted living facility for 16 hours every two weeks. Although she budgeted her money carefully, she still could not make ends meet, sometimes not even having enough money for gas or laundry. “Even though I do get [financial help],” she explained, “I still struggle.”

Like Jennifer, a significant number of today’s students—particularly those at community colleges—are working while attending school. Two-thirds of young community college students work more than 20 hours per week to cover college and family costs and 58 percent attend college part-time to accommodate work. While a moderate amount of work can improve a student’s likelihood of completion, too much work can lower completion rates and threaten chances of ever getting a degree. Because Jennifer qualifies for a variety of financial supports, she has been able to avoid working excessive hours—and still reports being unable to pay all of her basic living expenses.

But many students don’t receive these supportive services, and working full- or part-time to make ends meet may derail their academic progress. A 2009 survey of young adults who left their postsecondary education program found that 71 percent did so to “go to work and make money,” with over half (54 percent) of respondents listing these financial pressures as a “major reason.” Jennifer even considered dropping out of school to find full-time employment to increase her income and become more financially stable. Even when they have every intention to return, students who take breaks during their postsecondary education are less likely to complete a degree. Research shows that continuous enrollment is the number one predictor of college completion, increasing the probability of degree completion by 43 percent.

Instead of taking a break from school, what if Jennifer (and students like her) had the opportunity to continue their studies into the summer, without interruption, and were provided the financial means to do so? Reforms to the Higher Education Act—such as providing Pell grants flexibly throughout the year, reducing the “work penalty” (letting low-income working students keep more of their income for living expenses), and improving access to comprehensive financial supports—would help students like Jennifer complete college more quickly and enter or advance in the labor market. Moreover, such reforms would keep them enrolled in college continuously, improving their chances of completing a degree.

As Congress considers reforms to the Higher Education Act, students like Jennifer—working, low-income, adult students—should be at the forefront of the conversation. These students are the new face of higher education and our federal student aid system should be designed to better meet their needs.

[1] The name of the student interviewed has been changed to ensure confidentiality.