The Academic/Financial Nexus of College Completion
By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide
For years the common wisdom cited often in places like the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education was that low-income, first generation and students of color in particular dropped out of college for financial reasons. Certainly as the cost of college—even public colleges –has risen dramatically and the weight of debt has taken its toll in a straitened job market, the economics would seem to be a daunting challenge to overcome. Now however, comes a report from “Community College News Now” (May 2, 2012) of a study by the Louisiana Board of Regents showing that academics play a greater role in college attrition than finances. And I am not surprised.
It has for some time been my contention that academic problems were masquerading as financial problems. My evidence is purely anecdotal based on 20 years of student conversations as a dean and senior administrator in a wide range of institutions.
First, not to fully discount the purely financial, I have been very glad to see the rise of programs about financial literacy and have written part of the curriculum for one called “Winning Play$” myself. Students come to college and take on debt without understanding it. They do not understand the implications of interest rates for one. There are students whose families are culturally averse to taking loans but will put tuition on a credit card not realizing that it is, in fact, a very high interest compounding loan. They do not think to correlate the amount of debt to the profession they may end up pursuing. They do not or– if in the gray economy- cannot take advantage of tax breaks for education. They may not know they exist. These same populations may not be able or willing to fill out the FAFSA giving them access to federal financial aid programs. They may not know about loan forgiveness for certain careers or programs like teaching in high risk or underserved areas. Students try to pay as they go, dropping in and out while deferring higher earnings and often complicating their academic progress.
This takes us to the key point. First generation, low income and students of color, especially coming from urban or poor K-12 systems do not understand the ways in which their academics affect the financial side. Therefore, there has begun to be recognition that required remedial courses most often taken in Community Colleges and public institutions chew up valuable credits that are needed for degree completion. Pell funds only allow for 8 semesters of full time attendance at college. So if a student has both general education requirements to meet and then major requirements the additional remedial work may add credits and time to degree completion which would then use up some of those 8 semesters, leaving some to be then paid out of pocket. Obviously, it would be better if high schools actually graduated students college ready but that is a whole other matter. Given the current reality that students are primarily entering state and city colleges under-prepared we should be able to offer the remediation as non credit bearing in some way or as part of a specially funded summer experience so as to not use up the valuable federal or state funds.
Most students however, do not know that they only have 8 semesters of Pell funding or that the new rules are that they may not use them during the summer. Further they do not know that they are being accessed on the basis of normal progress to a degree. Therefore, if they fail too many classes, have GPAs below 2.0, or drop to part time status they cease to be making normal progress to the degree and risk loss of Pell funds (and often state funds.) If they are lucky enough to have private scholarships those also have rules and usually stipulate that a GPA in the area of 3.0 is a requirement. Now the academic problem becomes the financial problem.
Additionally, when students for whatever reason—work demands, poor grades, being overwhelmed—decide to drop out either from a course or school all together they can create a bigger problem. Legions of financial aid officers, advisers and registrars can attest to the numbers of students who just walk away from a class or a school thinking of themselves as having dropped out. But unless they have told a dean, professor or registrar they are still technically on the rolls and what they get next will be an F (or several) and a bill for courses they think they did not take. The academic again becomes a financial problem. Unless these bills are paid or resolved the student cannot progress further.
Given that the price tag of college keeps going up, students need to be very savvy about how their college dollars are spent. There are ways to address this problem to some degree within our colleges. First is to expand the idea of financial literacy such that students are made very clear about all the processes within a school that can have financial impact and the ramifications and the ways to approach these processes and procedures. This can be part of orientation, on the financial aid website, and in materials designed for this purpose. There can be reminders at key times—the drop/ add period or after midterms or when FAFSAs are due, for example.
Without becoming financial aid experts, which would not work, there is still a role for faculty in helping students navigate financial mine fields. Just knowing where students can find financial information is key. Each professor can also create a relationship with one financial aid officer to whom they feel they can refer students when the issue seems to be financial.
In discussions with struggling students professors can ask questions that may uncover financial issues underlying a surface problem such as absences that are job related. The goal is to use one’s instincts to try to avoid a student’s dropping out before the student does it. It has been very helpful to me when students were referred to the dean or advisor’s office because the professor noted danger signs like a lack of engagement or frequent absences. Often we have been able to salvage the academic situation before it became a financial crisis.
Advisers, deans and faculty can offer solutions to academic problems that protect students financially—maybe more forbearance in an absentee policy, offering incompletes, suggesting drops before the drop/ add period ends so a student can change courses, suggesting pass/fail when appropriate, being sure a student is placed properly in courses like math or languages, getting students help like tutoring so they don’t have to drop classes. We need to let them know that we know the risks they bear so they are more likely to approach us.
Having a more strategic approach to financial literacy that connects the dots between academic performance and actions helps create more willingness for students to get the support and help they need. College completion is about a complex web of interrelated issues and the financial/ academic nexus is a key one. Academics may be, in fact, the financial side of college completion