Real-life stories from students struggling to make ends meet help to contextualize and illuminate the financial barriers to college access and success.
That’s the basis of a new report on college affordability by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), which includes the perspectives and aspirations of 17 low-income and working-class college students interviewed over two semesters. It identifies opportunities for policymakers and institutional leaders to support all students through completion in ways that are grounded in students’ experiences and the affordability challenges they face.
“Over the course of this research, we have had an incredible opportunity to connect with talented, motivated college students who are making enormous sacrifices to complete their education and make a critical investment for themselves, their families and their communities,” said IHEP President Michelle Asha Cooper. “These are exactly the students that financial aid was designed to support, but for too long, our system has failed to make a college education truly affordable for low-income and working-class students.”
Barely getting by
In one example outlined in the study, Casey, a 31-year-old student and single mother in the paralegal studies program at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, is barely scraping by. She has had to sell personal items and scrap metal to make ends meet, almost had to drop a course because she couldn’t afford a $400 textbook, and finds it difficult to get her schoolwork done without being able to afford internet access at home.
“I could cover a $20 emergency right now. That’s it,” Casey said.
Deciding to go back to school and following “my dream to get my education has not been easy,” said Yuderka, an adult Latinx student who enrolled in Lehman College in New York after completing an associate degree at Bronx Community College (BCC).
Yuderka and her children have had to make many sacrifices, and she has incurred nearly $50,000 in student loan debt.
She works 20 hours a week at BCC and 15 hours a week in a work-study position at Lehman. That was the only way that she could cover her expenses at home without having “to stop school and look for a full-time job,” she said. “I had my financial aid, but the financial aid was only for the tuition.”
“It’s hard to settle down and study if you’re thinking about, ‘Am I going to have enough money for rent?’” said Coleen, a 20-year-old student at Ivy Tech.
Despite working 20 hours a week during the spring 2018 semester, Coleen still found it difficult to afford basic living expenses. And even when she had enough for tuition, “you don’t necessarily know how much your books will be,” she said.
Justin, a 20-year-old student at Ivy Tech, also said the unpredictability of textbook costs is a problem.
“Depending on the class … you can either have a $30 book or a $700 book. There’s no consistency and there’s no heads up either,” he said.
Balancing work and school has been so hard for Justin, he had an emotional breakdown. Despite working nearly full-time across multiple jobs, he said he “only had three cents to my name” after having to deal with unexpected repairs on his truck.
The report found all of the students interviewed emphatically recognized the value of attaining a degree and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to attend college and to learn among peers, gain independence and invest in their future. While they agreed that college is worth the sacrifices, the financial challenges forced some students to make difficult trade-offs that often put their college success at risk and took a toll on their well-being.
The students also overwhelmingly agreed that community college was an effective way to control costs, but they expressed great uncertainty about their ability to cover cost increases after transferring to a four-year institution.
“I feel like community college is a great thing,” said Brandy, a 38-year-old student at Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) in Maryland who is aiming for a nursing career.
“You should take all the classes you can … in community college before going to a university, because if you could get English 101 for $600 compared to $1,600, I think it goes without saying which one you choose,” she said.
Adejoke, a 19-year-old student at PGCC who plans to transfer to Towson University in the fall, and ultimately earn a doctorate in physical therapy, is worried about how much it will cost and how much financial aid she will get. Even though Adejoke has a Pell Grant and lives at home with her parents, she will work 24 hours a week to help pay for college and living expenses.
Barriers to college success
While need-based financial aid offered the students a lifeline, the study says, “the process is uncertain, confusing and complicated, and the high cost of attendance meant that the funds were often insufficient to meet students’ needs.”
Based on the challenges faced by the students, the report identified the following barriers to college success:
- Need-based financial aid is not adequately meeting the needs of low-income and working-class college students, and the financial aid process is often uncertain and confusing.
- Students are struggling to pay for non-tuition costs, such as housing, food, child care, transportation, books and emergency expenses.
- In balancing the demands of employment, school and family, students are forced to make choices that either sacrifice their own and their families’ well-being or their ability to succeed in college.
- Students don’t have the information they need to make important decisions about where to go to college, what to study and how they will afford it.
- Students who plan to begin at a two-year institution and transfer to a four-year institution as a cost-effective approach to earning a bachelor’s degree face challenges.
To help students better afford college, IHEP recommends strengthening need-based aid, targeting financial aid funding toward students with the greatest need, and providing greater transparency to students navigating a complex higher education system.
“Equity-minded higher education policy has to begin with listening to students,” Cooper said. “Higher education cannot fulfill its potential as a driver of economic and social mobility without grounding policy and practice in the lived experiences of today’s students, especially low-income students and students of color.”