About BFA

BFA: Its purpose and elements

BFA presents an expanded concept of support for low-income students that extends beyond financial aid. It is based on research and promising practices from initiatives in which institutions have demonstrated the ability to effectively serve and graduate low-income students. BFA is designed to guide action to increase the success of low-income students at all institutions by addressing the following questions:

  • Why should increasing success among low-income students be a high priority within the broader movement to increase student attainment?
  • What strategies can drive institutional change to better facilitate low-income students’ success?
  • How can institutions take a strengths-based approach to assessing readiness and capacity to support low-income students in their effort to attain high- quality credentials? 17
  • What steps can institutions take to strengthen their ability to help more low-income students complete and earn credentials?

BFA consists of three sections: Five Strategies to Increase the Success of Low-Income Students, the BFA Institutional Self-Assessment Guide, and the BFA Implementation Guide.

Section 1: Five strategies to increase the success of low-income students

The foundation of BFA is five core strategies for expanding institutional support for low-income student persistence, retention, and completion. These five strategies stem from promising, evidence-based practices that have worked to benefit students at postsecondary institutions of all sizes across the country.

We recognize that colleges and universities that close gaps in attainment and increase student success do not implement just one or two policies or practices to achieve results. BFA’s five strategies are strategically sequenced, as follows, to guide postsecondary institutions to productive action.

Strategy 1: Know your low-income students.

Each institution varies in the specific makeup of its low-income students and in the supports it offers those students. Reviewing quantitative and qualitative institutional data can help determine accurate numbers and characteristics of low-income students, how they experience the institution, and which factors affect their ability to succeed.

Strategy 2: Review internal processes and organize supports.

Institutional policies and practices are created to achieve specific outcomes and to address specific conditions. As time passes, however, what was designed to be a resource and/or reasonable process may become ineffective or have unintended negative consequences (academic, financial, or otherwise) on low-income students. While there may be an array of resources and supports for students, institutions can help low-income students overcome practical barriers to completion by reviewing internal processes and organizing supports to better meet their needs.

Strategy 3: Build internal and external partnerships.

Institutions can leverage and expand their capacity to meet the needs of low-income students by building partnerships to include internal groups—faculty, administrators, staff, students, and alumni; and external organizations with shared missions and commitments. Strengthening these partnerships can benefit students, institutions, and the external organizations.

Strategy 4: Optimize students’ use of services.

While some students proactively seek out services and resources, many others do not. Improving the accessibility of financial supports by reducing hassle factors, simplifying students’ choice-making, and providing clear messages and reminders to students about financial support services can increase their use.

Strategy 5: Create a culture of support.

Many institutions are exploring practices known to encourage the progression and achievement of all students. However, without sustainable, integrated institutional strategies that stabilize their finances and shore up their academic experiences, low-income students are at particularly high risk of not reaching their goals for postsecondary education.

Section 2: BFA institutional self-assessment guide

Each institution can address the five core strategies in ways that acknowledge its unique mix of culture, priorities, resources, and existing efforts. To identify priority areas for action, the BFA Institutional Self-Assessment Guide helps institutions work through a cross-functional team to:

  • Explore the variety of financial issues facing low-income students.
  • Determine the level of integration across institutional services.
  • Discover opportunities for improvement, both by enhancing and expanding current services and by adding new services that address gaps.

The accompanying interpretation guide will make sense of self-assessment results in terms of:

  • The institution’s current composition and the experiences of low-income students.
  • Potential opportunities to strengthen partnerships inside and outside of the institution.
  • The development of a plan of action for strengthening support for low-income students at the institution.

Section 3: BFA implementation guide

The information and resources within BFA have been curated to help strengthen the support of low-income students and to help improve key indicators of student and institutional performance, such as rates of student retention and completion.

However, the most important aspect of using BFA is taking action. This involves
1) organizing a cross-functional team to complete the institutional self-assessment;
2) discussing and using the self-assessment results to develop an action plan; and
3) acting to improve supports for low-income students. The implementation guide is designed to help institutions identify the key considerations in engaging a cross-functional team, gathering sources of information, and planning for action.

Benefits of strengthening support for low-income students

Going beyond traditional forms of financial aid to strengthen the financial stability of low-income students can generate significant benefits for students, institutions, communities and for state policy.

Benefits to students

Helping low-income students and their families address financial hardships can have short- and long-term benefits. If students have access to reliable supports such as transportation and child care or assistance when unanticipated financial challenges arise, they are more likely to attend classes and stay on top of their academic work, to stay enrolled from term to term and, ultimately, to achieve their education goals.

Two MDRC studies show that a limited financial award for students struggling with economic challenges can make a difference 18. In a 2009 demonstration project, low-income students were given up to $1,000 for each of two semesters. Those who received the assistance had term-to-term retention rates that were 30 percent higher than the control group. 19 In another MDRC study, students at 11 community colleges received emergency grants of $299 in 2005, and $430 in 2006. Results “varied, but overall, students receiving financial resources had higher term-to-term retention rates than the annual rates at the college overall.” 20

Benefits to institutions and systems

Mobilizing institutional resources to lessen students’ economic hardships can generate enormous benefits for students, institutions, and communities. Clearly, strengthening the financial stability of low-income students can enable an institution to meet its core mission of student success. Other benefits include:

  • Improving key indicators of institutional performance. When significant numbers of low-income students make progress and earn postsecondary credentials, key performance indicators (retention rates, persistence rates, graduation rates) improve, contributing to mission-critical goals for student outcomes and completion.
  • Creating economic gains for the institution. Alleviating the financial hardships of low-income students can decrease their likelihood of dropping out. As students persist in and complete college, institutions benefit from students’ success in the form of increased revenue from tuition and state apportionment.
  • Addressing calls for accountability. In an era of public accountability, colleges and universities are asked to do a better job of enrolling and graduating low-income students. Also, prominent institutions’ failures to enroll and graduate as many low-income students as they could are being spotlighted. 21
  • Strengthening relationships with community partners. In many cases, community partners (e.g., community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, government agencies, employers and nonprofit organizations) share the missions and values of colleges and universities. Additionally, these partners have expertise in aspects of student well-being that can complement institutions’ current strategies and help them develop new ones. Strategy 3 focuses on building mutually beneficial partnerships and offering them in a systematic and coordinated manner.

Benefits to states and policymakers

  • By increasing success among low-income students, states, policymakers, and postsecondary systems and institutions can come closer to achieving college completion goals and experiencing the economic boost from a more educated workforce.
  • Though low-income students may depend on services such as unemployment insurance, SNAP and Medicaid while enrolled in college, their use diminishes over the course of students’ lives given the inverse relationship of education and employment. 22

Benefits to communities

Adults with higher levels of education demonstrate behaviors associated with increased civic engagement. They are more likely to vote and volunteer in their communities, and they report a higher level of understanding of political issues. 23

BFA is a practical guide to help institutions provide the supports needed to get and keep low-income students on a pathway to completion. By doing so, postsecondary institutions can ensure that more low-income students achieve outcomes that translate into long-term educational and economic success.

Next: Strategies