What makes a difference in student financial health?

The Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) at the University of Texas examines how community colleges assess and support student financial health in their recent report.

We know that many community college students working to juggle school, work, and caregiving responsibilities are often coming up short financially. What can colleges do to make sure students are financially healthy, and what does that mean? The Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) at the University of Texas examines how community colleges assess and support student financial health in their recent report titled “Making Ends Meet.” With questions surrounding college affordability central to the work of trustees and administrators, it can prove helpful to look at students’ access to resources and perceptions of their financial skills and knowledge.

The CCCSE report states that 27 percent of their survey respondents reported getting insufficient information from their college about financial assistance, and almost half (47 percent) said that lack of financial resources could potentially cause them to drop out of college. Another sobering finding is that over 60 percent of employed student respondents said that they always live “paycheck to paycheck.” That number climbs to 74 percent of working students with dependent children. Clearly, accessing information about available support and accumulating enough financial resources to make ends meet presents a challenge for broad swaths of community college students.

To improve students’ financial health, some colleges have turned to providing or requiring financial literacy education. However, the CCCSE study indicates that improving student financial health may not be as simple as offering a class. Over 80 percent of surveyed students responsible for managing their own finances either agreed or strongly agreed that they had the necessary skills to handle their finances well. Yet, almost half of this same group indicated that they had run out of money at least once in the last year. These findings may seem to contradict each other at first glance, but the report authors posit some compelling hypotheses for this. First, if students aren’t aware of the financial skills needed to manage resources, they may not realize they don’t have these skills. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, these students may indeed have good financial management skills and only run out of money due to a lack of resources, not for lack of planning. As the authors surmise, maybe students would be running out of money far more often if they were not managing their resources so well. If that’s the case, increasing students’ financial skills through financial literacy education may need to be offered alongside increased access to resources to meet all students where they are.

With this in mind, it’s important for college leaders to make sure their institutions are providing helpful, accessible information about available financial resources and equipping students with financial know-how to empower them to maximize those resources.

Here are a few key questions drawn from the CCCSE report for college leaders who want to support students’ financial health:

●    Are we telling every student about all of the resources and services, such as emergency aid programs, that can help them through financial difficulties?

●    Can we partner with community organizations, social service agencies, workforce development agencies, or private foundations to help students access additional financial support services?

●    Are we providing financial assistance information - and financial management skill building - in our student success classes? What about in other classes, such as math, business, and economics?

Colleges can work to promote student success through disseminating information about available resources, cultivating strong financial support for students, and offering financial information that may help students manage their resources. Financially empowering students through both resources and knowledge can help them keep progressing toward the college and career success they pursue.

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