Colleges look to improve students' home lives to increase retention

Poverty 'is a societal issue that has come into the college environment'

Oftentimes, financial aid is not enough to help low-income students succeed in college, Scott Carlson reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

While financial aid can cover the cost of tuition, many students struggle to afford additional costs related to food, housing, transportation, and child care—leading them to leave school.

One-fifth of American adults complete some college but do not earn a degree—and the two most common reasons they leave are for work and family responsibilities, according to a 2014 Federal Reserve survey. These students likely have more trouble paying off student loans.

While policymakers and colleges have tried to give students an accurate forecast of how much higher education will cost them, and how that figure may increase from year to year, it is much more difficult to predict living costs, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who studies education policy and poverty.

Many institutions underestimate living expenses by at least $3,000 per year, Goldrick-Rab says. And federal guidelines say schools can assume students who live at home have zero expenses, which is generally untrue for low-income students.

"We don't want to repeat the mistake of the public schools that said 'Not our problem'" when some students show up hungry to class, she says. If students cannot cover basic living expenses, their schoolwork is affected, and policymakers may end up asking institutions to change teaching practices—when, in fact, the larger issue is life off campus.

Study: 71% of students say lack of money affects their eating, grocery shopping habits

To try to help students, some colleges have set up microgrants, food pantries, and financial counseling. Other institutions partnered with nonprofits to provide better access to services.

Skyline College, for example, partnered with United Way to create a center offering a food pantry, help enrolling in public benefits, and financial counseling.

"We are fully part of the college infrastructure in the sense that we report directly to the dean of counseling," says program coordinator Health Smith. "We are a retention strategy."

But laws can make helping students difficult.

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"It is a challenge to address to the non-educational costs," says Timothy Renick, VP for enrollment management and student success at Georgia State University (GSU). State rules limit what expenses the school can help with, he says. So rent or automobile repair may remain an issue.

Many students may need advice on how to handle their lump sum financial aid, as well.

"We are talking about students who have never really had access to money," says Cathy Buyarski, associate dean at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). "They don't know how to budget, and they don't know how to save."

"We have opened the doors to higher education," Buyarski says. Poverty "is a societal issue that has come into the college environment" (Carlson, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/6).

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