New ACCT Report: Bridging Financial Wellness and Student Success

A new ACCT report describes how community colleges can meet students’ financial needs with improved financial aid and education. The report highlights three colleges implementing the Guardian Money Management for Life program for personal finance and financial empowerment. 

Community college students face a number of financial decisions and obligations along the path to degree completion. Students must secure resources to pay for college expenses, including their tuition, fees, and basic living necessities. Central to this is students’ abilities to access financial aid resources including federal, state, and institutional aid. Colleges also play a role in providing clear and timely financial education to ensure students are aware of available resources and have a strong foundation in personal financial management. The need to ensure students’ financial wellness has been elevated by the current coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in unforeseen financial hardship for students experiencing health and economic emergencies. 

ACCT’s new report analyzes existing research on students’ financial wellness, with the goal to demonstrate how holistic supports for financial aid and education can positively impact student success. The following are highlights from the report:

Community college students’ expenses often exceed available grant aid 

Community college tuition is known for being relatively affordable; however, the cost of tuition and living expenses is typically greater than the amount of grant aid students receive and their available resources for paying out of pocket. According to College Board researchers, on average, community college students spend approximately $14,700 per year on room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and other living expenses. However, other research suggests that many community college students likely spend more than this amount on living expenses, especially those who are independent and those who are financially responsible for a family. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education 2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), nearly three-quarters have unmet financial need to pay for expenses, or the difference between their expected family contribution as calculated by the federal Free Applicational for Student Aid (FAFSA) and their awarded grant aid. Sufficient federal and state financial aid resources are necessary to meet students’ financial needs. Colleges can also support students with financial aid interventions such as emergency grant aid, institutional balance forgiveness, and improved information. 

Financial literacy can be a critical topic for students seeking to navigate the complex nature of college financing and personal expenses; but is not a replacement for financial aid resources.

Financial education combined with sufficient aid can help empower students to make complex financial decisions associated with attending college. Recommendations by the U.S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission (FLEC) and the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau emphasize that financial education must provide students with clear, timely, and targeted information.  To provide relevant financial education, community colleges must consider the varied skill sets and knowledge among their students. While recent high school graduates may benefit from financial education on foundational skills such as budgeting and saving, older students who have gained basic skills through life experiences are more likely to benefit from courses that address complex financial situations, such as managing family finances while attending college. Overall, community college students’ self-reported knowledge of financial management demonstrates opportunity for improvement, especially in comparison to their peers in the four-year university sectors.  

The report highlights the Guardian Money Management for Life (MMFL) Program as an example of a personal finance course that has expanded to a financial empowerment model to provide students with holistic support services.

The program began as a free, credit-bearing personal finance course, focusing on basic financial management topics such as budgeting, tax filing, and setting financial goals. Among students who participated in the course from 2015 to 2019, 75% report having a better understanding of personal financial management. Recognizing that when students’ basic financial needs are met, they are more likely to succeed academically, several MMFL partner colleges have expanded to a holistic financial wellness model. We include profiles of three such colleges: The University of the District of Columbia Community College in Washington, D.C.; Berkshire Community College in Massachusetts; and Capital Community College in Connecticut. These colleges have expanded services to include personal financial and career coaching, referrals to community-based organizations, and financial aid interventions, and these colleges are moving towards developing or expanding one-stop financial empowerment centers where students receive resources for financial education, aid, and career development.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Allison Beer is the Senior Policy Analyst for ACCT. She can be reached at

About ACCT Now

Community College Insights & Perspectives

ACCT Now is the go-to resource for issues affecting community colleges. In addition to reporting and research, you’ll have access to of-the-moment legislative updates. We’ve also included articles, reports, and research from outside sources that benefit the ACCT community.

Washington D.C. skyline