States Must Step Up When Traditional Financial Aid Is Not Enough

Published dec. 18, 2018

With unrelenting tuition hikes and growing debt loads, the cost of college has dominated headlines and legislative debates for years. But the typical community college student is worried about much more than paying for classes. Many juggle school with work to make ends meet and face daily concerns about the basics, such as access to adequate food, housing, transportation, child care, and health insurance.

Financial hardship is the number-one reason students withdraw from college. And common policy interventions, like freezing tuition rates and awarding “last-dollar” promise scholarships, aren’t instant cures for alleviating their economic woes.

States must find clear, specific ways to connect more students with the array of financial supports and services they need in order to stay in school and earn postsecondary credentials. 

JFF considers a range of policy approaches for strengthening students’ financial stability in Supporting Students Along Their Pathways, one of four white papers JFF recently commissioned. The series examines how states fund postsecondary institutions, measure their impact, increase alignment across K–12 and postsecondary education systems, and support students to complete a credential and start a career. The reports reflect the vision of JFF’s Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success and offer ideas for catalyzing change through state and federal policies that encourage the implementation and scale of evidence-based student success reforms. 

True affordability means students can pay for food, housing, transportation, child care, and health insurance—not just tuition.

Strengthening Pathways toward Postsecondary Success

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The Staggering Stats for Financially Vulnerable Students

Reframing affordability around overall financial stability recognizes that it’s the total cost of attendance and unmet financial needs that matter most to college persistence and success.

About 79 percent of low-income, first-generation students had unmet financial needs even after receiving all the financial aid for which they were eligible, according to a 2010 study. 

A 2018 survey across 66 colleges in 20 states revealed distressing details about financial difficulty among community college students, including:

  • 43 percent worried about having enough food, 
  • 46 percent experienced some level of housing insecurity in a year, 
  • 12 percent were homeless, and
  • 25 percent were parents supporting children. 


For these students, working longer hours to cover education-related expenses beyond tuition is the wrong solution. In fact, it’s no solution at all. Working too many hours makes students less successful than their peers in both persistence and academic performance.

We’re not going to be able to ‘food-bank’ our way out of these problems.

Direct services like food banks and transit vouchers can provide immediate relief. But they’re simply short-term bandages for the systemic insecurities many postsecondary students face. As a member of JFF’s Postsecondary State Network recently put it, “We’re not going to be able to ‘food-bank’ our way out of these problems.” 

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States Must Support Students to Get What They Need 

States must create comprehensive systems of financial supports to help community college students succeed. Policymakers and college leaders need to find better ways to connect students with available financial resources, such as temporary cash assistance, food stamps, housing vouchers, child care subsidies, and health insurance.

This level of action is imperative. Many students are unaware that they qualify for such services, while others have struggled to secure these benefits because of difficulties navigating bureaucratic systems or eligibility restrictions. Some avoid seeking help because of associated stigmas.

Actively connecting students to external supports requires institutional resources, especially staff time, to assess individual needs and sustain partnerships with human service providers. Those costs are not likely to be reimbursed through traditional enrollment funding formulas.

Current Financial Aid Programs Are Out of Touch 

Meanwhile, the way the federal government and states have designed most financial aid programs no longer reflects the needs and situations of the modern student. Most aid still goes to “traditional” college students who matriculate directly from high school and attend full time. Adult and part-time students often cannot obtain aid due to methods for determining unmet financial needs, eligibility based on full-time enrollment, and “first-come, first-serve” disbursement practices.

As a result, financial aid programs are out of reach for people in key populations who, as state officials are aware, need postsecondary credentials in order for states to meet their attainment and economic goals. Even among those students who qualify for financial aid, thousands each year withdraw close to graduation when their aid packages run dry. 

5 Actions to Strengthen Student Financial Stability

Supporting Students Along Their Pathway makes recommendations for reforming financial aid and expanding access to other forms of financial assistance. Here are five provocative yet actionable policy ideas:

  1. Track and regularly report total cost of attendance and unmet needs to galvanize new policy solutions. 
  2. Target state financial aid to students who need it most.
  3. Ensure aid programs incentivize and support completion.
  4. Provide greater access to public assistance for students.
  5. Support stronger partnerships between higher education and human services.

The paper explores each of these recommendations at length and offers real-life examples. Take a look, and share your reactions on social media at #JFFPostsecondary.

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