College students are faced with difficult choices all the time. That’s part of becoming an adult. But imagine having to decide between attending class, eating, or keeping a roof over your head. It’s the reality for impoverished students. Over a third of college students in the United States lack access to adequate meals and housing.
A recent Inside Higher Ed article identified and described several institutions that have established basic needs programs on their campuses to serve students who can’t afford life’s necessities but choose to stay in school. Bravo to these institutions – after all, they admitted the students to their campuses and have a responsibility for the students’ well-being.
Here’s the thing: the student poverty issue isn’t news. Students have sacrificed some of their basic needs for years to make ends meet. It will only worsen unless higher education takes a more proactive approach to holistic student wellness instead of a reactive one. When I say “holistic,” I’m referring to eight dimensions of wellness: emotional, environmental, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, spiritual, and, let us not forget, financial.
All higher education institutions assess students’ preparedness for college before admission. They all require health information and vaccination statuses. They all encourage students to find their communities of fellow movie buffs, crocheters, or hacky-sack players. But they’re inconsistent regarding how well a student can balance a budget.
I believe every higher education institution is responsible for ensuring students are financially literate. This must begin before students matriculate and accept tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Yes, I recognize that some “counseling” occurs before students accept a loan each year, but I don’t think they truly understand their financial commitment in four or more years.
The good news is that many institutions already offer financial literacy programs to their students. LendEDU has a helpful roundup of some of the nation’s top programs, including many that provide in-person and online courses for money management, personal finance and investing 101 with faculty. Some offer on-campus money management tools and top-tier financial coaching with school alum.
For example, Texas Tech University’s “Red to Black” program is run by peer financial coaches pursuing personal financial planning degrees. It covers topics such as spending plans and maximizing student loans. Syracuse University offers similar peer-led services, as well as a “Money Awareness Program” that replaces loans with grants in return for participation in financial literacy sessions every semester.
I applaud the schools that implement mandatory financial literacy courses into their programs and invest a significant amount of research into the topic, including academic professionals, industry professionals, and policymakers in the discussion. As outstanding student debt exceeds $1.52 trillion, I would love to see more institutions follow their lead.
Fewer students are attending colleges and universities. Compared to their 2012-2020 enrollment numbers, higher education institutions nationwide face an estimated 8.4% decline in their student population, costing them $27.1 billion in lost tuition.
So how does an institution stay afloat? They recruit and admit more students, cut expenses, or both. The cost of recruiting a student in 2022 was approximately $2,795. Compare that to the cost of losing students: $10 million annually for the average four-year institution.
Based on those numbers, shouldn’t colleges and universities prioritize retaining students over recruiting them? And when recruiting, shouldn’t they focus on students who can succeed in every wellness dimension, including financially? If institutions accept students who need financial help, they have a responsibility to ensure students can eat, sleep, and have the resources to do well in and out of class.
Unfortunately, there are only two ways of dealing with budget shortages: increase revenue or reduce expenses. Most often, increasing revenue is focused on enrolling more students, which can be short-sighted, especially if students are not properly prepared for student success. Decreasing expenses, on the other hand, can often be achieved by reducing some services, including student success services such as wellness programs. Students who depend on these services risk dropping out, leaving them with loads of debt but no degree, ultimately reducing the revenue institutions count on to maintain their budgets. This starts a vicious cycle: students leave, institutions suffer, and more students leave. The inverse is that holistic student health means holistic institutional health.
Turning Words Into Action
Every college and university has a mission, vision and values statement. I urge every institution to check theirs against the student’s experience. Do they align? Can they align if some of the student’s basic needs – like money for food and rent – are unmet?
To be successful, students must be able to afford every aspect of their education. Only then can they attend class, do well academically, discern their calling, and find fulfillment in a meaningful job or career at the end of their education. This path may seem straightforward, but too many students today are forced to detour.