How to support students when financial aid falls short

When students lack money for books, transport or even food, universities have ways to help them manage and stay on track with their studies. Jerry Price looks at strategies for assisting students in financial need

Jerry Price 's avatar
20 Feb 2024
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Even with scholarships, grants and loan funds available to cover most or all of their tuition expenses, many students still face personal financial challenges that could jeopardise their ability to stay in school. Colleges can use programmes and resources to help minimise this financial stress and keep students on track to graduation.

When designing a strategy to help students, it is helpful to focus on the fundamental student needs that are commonly a source of stress: academics, food and housing.

Key financial stressors on college students

Academic needs

  • Books and other academic supplies: Students’ inability to access books and other academic supplies can compromise their readiness for their classes or their ability to produce their best work. 
  • Academic support: Many students benefit from additional academic support, such as tutoring. While the institution might provide basic tutoring services, some students will need more advanced support, which comes with additional costs. This is particularly true for many students with disabilities.
  • Transportation: For some students, just having reliable access to and from campus can be a challenge. Poor class attendance is one of the biggest risks to a student successfully completing a course.

Food insecurity

Students experiencing food insecurity often find themselves forced to divert time and energy from their academic priorities to manage their basic living needs. In the most challenging circumstances, some students must choose between buying groceries or fuel to get to campus.

Housing insecurity

Similarly, the lack of a stable housing situation can abruptly force students to put aside their academic priorities to focus on securing new living arrangements. Unfortunately, these new arrangements are often just as temporary.

How can universities support students in times of financial difficulty

To help mitigate challenges caused when money is tight, universities can strategically use their resources to help students stay focused on their academic progress and success. The following are strategies to consider.

Food pantries and campus partnerships

Many campuses now offer food pantries for their students. Some pantries can be simple, providing primarily canned goods and microwavable meals. Other pantries are more comprehensive, providing fresh produce as well as household needs.

Universities do not have to absorb all the financial burden for helping students facing financial challenges. Collaborating with campus partners such as your bookstore or library could provide additional opportunities to give textbooks and supplies to students. Frequently, libraries can put extra copies of textbooks on reserve for those students who cannot afford them. Also, corporate bookstore partners might be open to providing credits or other subsidies for students identified by the university.

Food service providers can be another source of corporate partnership. For example, Chapman University partner Sodexo offers the Swipe Out Hunger programme, which supplies meals in the campus cafeteria for students who are experiencing food insecurity. 

While housing assistance programmes are not typically specifically for college students, some high-need students might be eligible for housing subsidies from state or county programmes. Or these programmes might help them to find more cost-effective housing options.

Campus employment 

Another way to help high-need students is to provide stable, convenient employment opportunities for them. For a student, having a job on campus offers many advantages over a job in the community. They can pick up a few hours between classes and do not waste time on a bus or in a car commuting to and from jobs in the community.

In addition, campus jobs tend to be more stable and students are less likely to have their hours reduced. Campus employers will be mindful not to work students for too many hours, which would threaten their ability to keep up academically.

Emergency or hardship funds

Perhaps the most versatile method of helping high-need students is through a hardship or emergency fund. Often created through donations, these assistance funds can be used for a variety of purposes:

  • Academically, hardship funds subsidise books, supplies or tutoring services. For students struggling with transportation challenges, hardship funds can be used to buy bus passes or even provide fuel subsidies for commuting students.
  • A student will use hardship funds when they have encountered a personal emergency that creates an unexpected additional financial hardship, such as medical bills or car repairs.
  • Another possibility is to partner with financial aid colleagues to provide campus housing subsidies for students experiencing housing insecurity.

Explore fundraising opportunities 

While some colleges might budget for emergency needs, hardship funds typically are made possible by donations. Since faculty and staff are likely to know students who are facing financial challenges, they are a promising source for donations, in addition to parents and alumni. Offering an opportunity to donate to a hardship fund through a payroll reduction programme can be an effective way to raise funds.

As you approach potential donors, it can be effective to provide specific, but anonymous, examples of how the hardship funds are being used. Real-life examples of the struggles students face and how hardship funding helped them stay in school can be powerful selling tools.

Maximising fundraising opportunities, along with the other methods described above, should help you devise a strategy to minimise financial stress and help keep students on track to graduation.

Jerry Price is the dean of students and vice-president for student affairs at Chapman University.

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For more advice and resources on this topic, go to our Spotlight collection Helping students through the cost-of-living crisis.


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