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Hoops and Hurdles of Financial Aid

Student Success Financial Wellness Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
January 16, 2020 Alexa Wesley Chamberlain NASPA

This is the first in a three-part series about aspects of financial aid policies that misalign with students’ lived experiences. 

The start of the New Year brings us the opportunity to reflect on what we have learned and renew focus on what big challenges we still need to tackle. While institutions have made meaningful progress in advancing emergency aid efforts and strengthening financial supports, college affordability still serves as a multifaceted challenge facing student success. Identifying the direction of the path forward calls for an understanding of ways our financial aid system falls short for students and how they currently experience it. 

Among undergraduates in the United States, approximately 62 percent work while in school, 38 percent are enrolled part-time, 28 percent have children, and 40 percent are age 25 or older. The policies driving our current higher education system are largely designed without these characteristics in mind, leaving students with burdensome hoops to jump through and hurdles to overcome to receive, maintain, and manage their financial aid. 

A central goal of financial aid is to provide access to higher education for students. Examination of who is and is not benefiting from the current system, however, reveals that certain aid eligibility criteria and application policy can run counter to this goal. Administrators at colleges and universities directly see the impact of aid policies that are incompatible with the realities of students. 

State Eligibility Restrictions and Application Timing

National analysis of the 100 largest state-funded aid programs reveals that 30 of them require full-time enrollment and 26 have age-out policies that link eligibility to a high school graduation date. Though incentivizing immediate, full-time enrollment to quicken a student’s time to degree may be well-intentioned, restricted state eligibility policies fail to recognize the range of factors driving students’ enrollment decisions. Part-time enrollment may be the only manageable choice for students already balancing family, work, and other financial responsibilities. Policymakers should offer greater flexibility for students whose circumstances make full-time status an unrealistic option or who decide to return to college later in their lives.

Another access challenge is with the timing of state application deadlines and disbursement policies. Awarding aid to those who apply on a first-come, first-serve basis can end up disadvantaging students who may have less predictable enrollment schedules. A student might not have time to gather information needed to submit their application up until its final due date, only to find that state aid for that term has already been depleted. An approach that prioritizes aid based on timing and the speed at which a student can complete an application diminishes policy goals of awarding aid to those who need it most. Grant aid disbursement should be more fairly distributed based on need rather than the timeliness of a student’s application submission.

Prorated Federal Aid Awards

Disparity in aid distribution for part-time students continues at the federal level. Despite having similar income levels as their full-time counterparts, part-time students have a smaller proportion of their attendance costs covered by Pell Grants. One reason for this is because Pell Grants are prorated based on enrollment intensity, meaning that the aid amount is proportional to the number of courses in which a student is enrolled. Receipt of any aid is nearly impossible for those who drop in and out of the system and enroll less than half-time.

Using the number of credits a student is able to take as an indicator of the level of financial support needed seems to assume that part-time students have lower costs of attendance than full-time students. However, students who are enrolled at least part-time still have the same maximum federal loan limit as full-time students. Such conflicting policies can push low-income, part-time students to rely more heavily on loans to finance their education and increase their chances of dropping out with debt and no degree. Eligibility requirements and aid disbursement policies should account for and support differences in student enrollment patterns and decision making.

SNAP Benefit Limitations

On December 4, the Trump administration proposed a new rule that would weaken the already limited reach of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for college students. Despite research indicating that nearly half of college students face food insecurity, only 3 percent receive SNAP benefits. Students are generally ineligible for SNAP unless they fall under one of the exceptions, including enrolling in school less than half-time, having dependents, working 20 hours a week, or participating in federal work-study or certain public benefit or workforce training programs. Under the proposal, enrolling on a less than half-time basis no longer counts as an exemption. 

If implemented, the rule could worsen student confusion around the complicated SNAP eligibility process and create a barrier for students who are only able to enroll in one or two courses at a time. Updates to the federal food assistance program should simplify and expand benefits eligibility – not further limit and complicate it – to better address the prevalence of food insecurity among today’s students. 

Strategies for SA Pros

Student affairs professionals play an important role in highlighting how students experience the aid system. Spotlighting policy barriers felt at the campus-level can help lawmakers avoid perpetuating or amplifying the current system’s inequities in proposed reforms. Moreover, personal advocacy with elected officials through public comments and letter-writing campaigns can serve as a powerful strategy for storytelling and a way to elevate important issues. Additionally, barriers and assumptions about student preferences at the state and federal level may be mirrored at the institution-level. A cross-functional working group of practitioners and students could be formed to identify areas in need of structural change and opportunities for improvement on the campus.