College affordability and a clear understanding of financial aid are among the biggest challenges low-income students pursuing a higher education face. Education experts say that colleges and universities can play a larger role in increasing student success by changing their financial aid practices, according to a new report.
The new report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation titled “Making College Affordable” offers 11 best practices for colleges and universities to implement in order to alleviate financial burdens on students. Institutional “practices that reflect the disparate realities of low-income students ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed,” the report stated.
“For too long, students have been left out of the equation when it comes to college affordability,” said Dr. Zakiya Smith, strategy director at Lumina Foundation and author of the report’s foreword. “With this report, we can start to have a conversation about taking the onus off the student to figure out how to pay for college and putting it on institutions to provide students with better information to help them make more informed choices.”
Dr. Jennifer Glynn, director of research at the foundation, and Dr. Crystal Coker, a postdoctoral research associate at the foundation, are co-authors of the report, which is broken down into three categories to make the researchers’ findings “more digestible” for administrators and financial aid officers who support students, Glynn said.
Each strategy falls under one of three categories: clarifying financial information, easing the financial burden and filling in financial aid gaps.
The researchers’ findings and suggested strategies stem from their academic research and their experience with the foundation’s scholarship program over the last 17 years. Several strategies emerged from observations by the foundation’s educational advisers on of staff who work with high school seniors as they are getting their college acceptance and financial aid letters.
Further, Glynn and Coker’s report specifically calls attention to the “excellence gap,” a phenomenon where promising low-income students who score highly on standardized tests are less likely to obtain a college degree than their higher-income peers. According to the report, students from low-income families are one-eighth as likely to attend college and to graduate as students from high-income families.
One of the things that the Cooke Foundation aims to do is “connect the world of academic research with practice,” said Glynn.
Some implementable practices are as simple as institutions reworking their financial aid letters to include clear language – with no abbreviations or acronyms – about the source and amount of a grant. The report also suggests using clearer language about eligibility requirements for the continuation of aid and a statement, for example, that “loan amounts are suggestions, not requirements.”
Providing students with a four-year estimate of expected costs or projected tuition increases and establishing “more robust” methods for estimating non-tuition costs will also help students make informed decisions, according to the report.
It also notes that information about non-tuition costs such as textbooks, food and housing can included in early financial award letters as well: “Underestimation of living expenses can mean insufficient financial aid; overestimation can lead to students borrowing more money than they need.”
Other suggested strategies will take more work on the part of the institution, such as committing to not reducing institutional aid during a student’s academic program, committing to not displacing institutional aid when students receive private scholarships and prioritizing need-based institutional grants.
The researchers’ findings show that when schools displace institutional aid because a student seeks outside private funding, “they limit the benefit of private scholarships, particularly for low-income students.”
While Glynn understands that schools may have a limited pool of aid money to distribute, she says it is unfair to penalize students who are proactive in seeking out private scholarship support. At the Cooke Foundation, scholarships are given as a “last dollar” scholarship so that institutions must “put all of their financial aid cards on the table first,” to avoid institutional aid displacement, Glynn pointed out.
And as schools scramble to outbid each other to attract high-achieving students with merit aid, Glynn and Coker found that this merit-based aid may actually “exacerbate the excellence gap by limiting aid to students who may need it most,” they wrote in the report.
This type of aid typically attracts students whose families may be able to pay for their college education out of pocket.
“Unfortunately, the student who is getting left out of that shuffle is the really deserving low-income student,” Glynn warned. “I don’t think that our public institutions should be offering merit aid at the expense of low-income students.”
The final section of the report, “Filling in the Gap,” suggests that colleges and universities can establish emergency aid programs and integrate financial aid and social services for students struggling with their financial needs. In one study at the University of California, the researchers found that one-fourth of students chose between buying food or paying for education and housing expenses.
To address food and housing insecurity, a problem that Glynn and Coker say is more pervasive than is generally understood, institutions can create completion scholarships to cover outstanding balances for eligible students, establish food pantries or partner with public benefit programs, giving students access to financial support through outside organizations.
Education experts acknowledge that, in some cases, it is the institution or its unintentionally harmful practices that act as a barrier to students’ academic success and completion. The suggested that strategies reflect the changing student demographics as more low-income and first-generation students enroll in higher education institutions today.
“One of the things I like about this report is that it’s got a range of recommendations in it,” Glynn said. “Some of them definitely have a financial cost associated with them. Offering more financial aid is going to cost more money…but others are relatively low cost or even cost free.”
She added, “Some of it is just shifting the culture to have institutional constituents becoming aware of the fact that their student body is becoming more diverse and those diverse students are coming in with, in some cases, different needs that need to be addressed.”
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.