Strategy 1: Know your low-income students
The facts enumerated in the Introduction (and the Appendices) describe the challenges facing today’s students. While national data outline the nature and scope of the issues low-income students face, they smooth out variations that may exist across regions and states and between two-year and four-year institutions. Each college and university is unique in the composition of its students, services, and resources. Likewise, each institution varies in the specific makeup of its low-income students, the range of unmet needs, and the supports required to address their needs.
To effectively support the success of low-income students, postsecondary institutions must begin by understanding who their low-income students are. Research suggests that institutions could do more to identify students who have need. 24 In a national study of more than 500 postsecondary institutions that offer emergency aid programs—defined as small grants, loans, and scholarships as well as food, and housing and transportation assistance for students experiencing unexpected crises—nearly three-quarters of institutions reported that “data are not used to proactively identify students who may benefit.” 25 And approximately one-third reported that their institution does not collect the needed data or lacks the capacity to analyze data for that purpose.
For institutions that use data to identify students who may benefit from emergency supports, the leading sources of information are reports from the offices of financial aid, student accounts, and in some instances, information related to students’ academic status and/or course grades. 26 While almost every source of data at postsecondary institutions is underused, Darlena Jones, director of assessment and research for the Association for Institutional Research, urges institutions to look to both administrative and non-administrative data to better understand the needs of their low-income students. Administrative data must be gathered to run the institution; such data include information related to admissions, enrollment, grades, finance, and financial aid. Non-administrative data, which are related to student satisfaction and learning outcomes, are collected by most academic units within institutions. 27 Student affairs units also collect a wealth of information (e.g., program reviews, program headcount, swipe card data, maintenance requests).
To assess the needs of low-income students, institutions can begin by asking:
- How many of your students are low income, economically disadvantaged, and/ or have unmet financial need?
- What are their levels of genuine unmet financial need, defined as the difference between their costs (e.g., tuition, fees, living expenses, books) and resources (e.g., grants, scholarships, loans, and student and/or family contributions)?
- What campus services do they use?
- What is their employment status?
- How many have dependent family members?
To answer these and related questions, it may be helpful to first identify a cross-functional team of colleagues—perhaps an existing college committee—who define terms (e.g., low income), determine which questions to answer, and decide which data to explore. Reviewing institutional data can provide insight on the number and characteristics of low-income students, how these students experience the institution, and which factors affect their ability to succeed.
Georgia State University (GSU) uses its data to award Panther Retention Grants to financially imperiled students during the drop period. Recipients of these micro-grants have a genuine unmet need and are on track for graduation. The largest group of micro-grant recipients are low-income seniors, especially those who switched majors at some point, maxing out their loans and running out of major types of financial aid. These students represent roughly 15 percent of GSU’s undergraduate population but 100 percent of students with genuine unmet need, two semesters from graduation with small funding gaps. Low-income seniors are the largest recipient group, but funds are not restricted to them. GSU launched Panther Retention Grants in 2011 with $40,000, covering grants to approximately 40 students. Since then it has expanded to reach more than 4,000 students per year. GSU uses three data points as criteria to identify eligible students: 1) genuine unmet need; 2) on track academically for graduation as determined by data analytics and advisory system; and 3) on the drop list. The maximum grant is $1,500, and the average amount awarded is $900. Participating students must sign a contract and agree to meet with a financial counselor to design a financial plan to fund the completion of their education. More than 70 percent of the seniors who receive the grants graduate within two semesters.
Quantitative data regarding low-income students can be balanced by collecting qualitative evidence that illuminates their unique experiences. Surveys, focus groups, and interviews with low-income students and the practitioners who work with them can help inform institutional approaches to support and service delivery as well as policy approaches. Institutional data can provide insight on the number and characteristics of low-income students, how these students experience the institution, and which factors affect their ability to succeed.