Ah, September. The thrill of move in and orientation has passed and classes are starting to pick up speed. What more could students ask for? Well, many are asking for “refund checks” from financial aid, but the reasoning is not always financially sound.
Students have a variety of reasons for why they want the extra resources—some are very personal (family or medical needs), some are practical (see below), and some are products of social pressures. In Gwendolyn Foster’s Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture, class passing - where a student projects a socioeconomic status of which they do not usually belong - is generally accepted as a normative behavior. I have personally seen students forgo nutritional meals in lieu of popular $600 jackets, the latest Jordans, or the latest phone when cheaper alternatives were available. The physical embodiment of class mobility is a crippling phenomenon that causes students to make unwise financial choices in order to blend in with their perceived peer SES (despite many students making similar choices).
Dispelling the myth of the “standard collegiate SES” is a tough task, and unfortunately, this post isn’t about how to do that. When the opportunity arrises to talk to students about financial aid, however, there may be an opportunity to at least get them to think about the options of financial aid use and the consequences. Here are some tips from USA Today on responsible uses for financial aid refunds:
- Room and Board – If a student lives off campus, there will likely be rent as well as utilities to prepare for. This expense requires some planning since the excess funds may need to stretch over multiple months and take into account emergency expenses.
- Books and Resources – It’s no secret that books are expensive. It’s also not a secret that bookstores (even on campus) are still stores and look to make a decent profit. Advise students to shop around, particularly online and for used books, to try and cut corners - but not to sacrifice textbooks all together when money is tight.
- Transportation – The article mostly uses this to apply to commuting to and from school, but on many campuses, this could also include transportation to and from home on breaks (some campuses require students to vacate during those time periods). Even if living on campus, students may want to use a bus to get to a destination.
- Save for Later – This is particularly good for students who, for whatever reason, cannot work during the year. There will always be expenses that arise that are unplanned and students should be prepared without resting on credit cards and building other forms of debt. There can also be planned expenses such as study abroad or internships that saved funds could help with.
- Pay it Back – If you don’t need it, don’t take it. Students often look to their “refund” check without realizing that unless there was a surplus of scholarships, that money is just more of a loan with interest. If a student doesn’t need the excess funds, they can use them to start paying off the loan debt and work towards financial security in the future.
Many of us in student affairs can personally relate to the pains of taking out more loans than we needed (and will be paying for that decision for decades), but we also have opportunities in many arenas to provide programming and advising around financial wellness that can equip students with the tools to make smart decisions around financial aid and resources. We may not be able to curb the culture of luxury-based identity development, but we may be able to at least get our students to think about the long term effects of short term wants purchased with excess loan funds.
Steve received his B.S. in African-American Studies at Florida State University and his M.S. in College Student Personnel from the University of Tenessee-Knoxville. He served as the Residence Hall Director for Risley Residential College for the Creative and Performing Arts at Cornell University for the last three years and has recently started his new role as an Admissions Counselor at Ithaca College.