Supporting Students Beyond Financial Aid

By Dennis Pierce

This excerpt comes from the February/March 2016 issue of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Joshua Tanon was struggling to afford books for his engineering science classes at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), and the subway fare from his home in the Bronx to school and back also was a burden.

“I was unable to work, because trying to balance school, home priorities and studying proved to be too much,” he says. He was in danger of dropping out of college, cutting short his dream of working for NASA.

Then Tanon was accepted into an innovative program run by the City University of New York (CUNY) system called ASAP — and his fortune turned around.

Covering the extras 

ASAP, which stands for Accelerated Students in Associate Programs, provides financial assistance, academic tutoring and personalized support to help at-risk students complete an associate degree within three years. Besides waiving any difference between tuition and fees and what a student receives in state and federal aid, the program also gives students free Metro cards and helps them pay for their textbooks.

This extra financial assistance, coupled with comprehensive counseling and moral support, has had “a huge impact” on Tanon’s success, he says, adding that ASAP has given him “the breathing room I needed to focus on school and priorities outside of school.”

Tanon graduated from BMCC last May and was accepted into a summer NASA internship at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where he helped design sensors for a low-level glider that will explore Mars. He is now pursuing his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“Without ASAP, I don’t know where I’d be today,” he says.

Not enough

Tanon’s early struggles are all too common on campuses nationwide. Low-income students face a number of obstacles that go beyond the cost of tuition and fees. For instance, their schooling often requires expenses that often aren’t covered by financial aid, such as books and commuting costs. What’s more, education is often competing for their time with other responsibilities, such as the need to work or take care of family.

“We know the majority of students who drop out do so because of financial reasons,” says Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, senior policy analyst at the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, a division of the Center for Law and Social Policy. “We can reform orientation, and we can reform career counseling — but if we don’t address the financial challenges facing low-income students, we won’t see the jump in persistence and completion that we all have as a goal.”

Traditional financial aid can offset much of the cost of attending college, but many students have unmet financial needs even after all grants and loans have been exhausted, Lumina Foundation notes. These students would benefit from a more comprehensive approach, the foundation says — a campus-based network of supports that gives them the financial stability they need to focus on their education.

Six strategies

In 2015, Lumina issued “Beyond Financial Aid,” a report that calls for better support of low-income students. The report outlines six strategies for providing this support, distilled from best practices at colleges across the country.

Some of these best practices are integrated into ASAP, which operates at six of the seven community colleges in the CUNY system. While helping low-income students is not its sole focus — it’s a college completion program that combines academic, personal and financial supports — ASAP has proven successful in meeting their needs.

“Because we’re running this program in a space that has a high percentage of low-income students, we’re removing the barriers those students face,” says Donna Linderman, dean for student success initiatives and ASAP director.