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The perception of the “typical” American college student – an 18- to 22-year-old who lives in a residence hall and studies full time in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree – is no longer a reality. Times have changed. The percentage of Hispanic college students is 240 percent higher than it was 20 years ago. During that period, while the percentage of white students increased 11 percent, the percentage of African-American students jumped 72 percent.2 Roughly 40 percent of today’s undergraduates are over 25 years of age, and only 13 percent live in on-campus housing. Forty percent of today’s students attend school part-time.3
These statistics illustrate just a fraction of the diversity of today’s students and their experiences. But one statistic may be most telling: More than one-third of today’s college students are low-income students; that is, they are receiving Pell grants to help them pay for their education. And it’s important to note that many Pell-eligible students don’t receive or even apply for Pell, so it’s very likely that the proportion of low-income college students is much higher than 33 percent. In any case, an unprecedented number of students struggle to meet college costs, and the reality of the challenges they face is all too clear:
Many of today’s students are dealing with limited financial resources at a time when the costs of postsecondary education are on the rise. The total cost of attendance is calculated by combining “direct costs” such as tuition and fees and “indirect costs” such as books, transportation, supplies, room and board, and living expenses. Since 1980 the total has increased by 162 percent at four-year public colleges, 168 percent at four-year private non-profit colleges, and by 69 percent at community colleges. But students’ household incomes have not kept pace. During this same 35-year period, median household income grew by only 12 percent, and for families in the bottom 40 percent the average household income increased by only 4 percent.9
Traditional financial aid – in the form of grants, loans, and scholarships – helps bridge the gap between costs and student resources. However, the demand for this aid often far exceeds the supply, because both the total cost of attendance and the pool of eligible students continue to increase. The average Pell grant today covers only 33 percent of the cost of attending a public four-year college as compared to roughly 73 percent in 1980; and barely 60 percent of the cost of attending community college, as opposed to virtually full-cost coverage in 1980.10
Financial stressors lead many students to make choices that undermine their progress toward completion or cause them to drop out altogether.
For most low-income students the impact of unmet financial need begins at home and ripples into the classroom. Indirect costs are estimated to make up 60 percent of the total cost of attending college,11 and three critical cost items – food, housing, and child care – significantly threaten many students’ ability to persist in and complete college. Many students sacrifice necessities, like textbooks, computers, or other key supplies, to make ends meet. Some incur personal debt to pay for recurring expenses like rent and utilities. Some are hungry, homeless, or both. The weight of these pressures demands much of these students’ attention, increases their stress levels, and compromises their ability to focus on coursework. Subsequently, financial stressors lead many students to make choices that undermine their progress toward completion or cause them to drop out altogether.
Considering these challenges, it is not surprising that the extra burdens of unmet financial need are a big part of the reason that low-income students continue to trail their higher-income peers in postsecondary attainment:12
The good news: change is possible, and it’s already underway. Over the past 15 years, a growing number of colleges and universities around the country have been implementing strategies to address the unique challenges that low-income students encounter. Such supports include access to reliable and adequate nutrition, transportation, housing, and child care as well as an array of financial and other student support services.