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How Student Affairs Professionals Can Impact College Affordability

September 6, 2018 Alexa Wesley Research and Policy Associate

College affordability is one of top challenges framing the current context of higher education. Given the economic realities of today’s students and institutions, what role do student affairs professionals play in addressing the rising costs of college? This post explores this question and outlines a few areas in which student affairs professionals are working to effect change around college affordability.   

As state investments continue to dwindle, the costs of attending college are being increasingly shouldered by students. In response to lost state funding, institutions have had to reduce operational expenditures and increase tuition and fees. According to a College Board report, increases in in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions have outpaced the rate of inflation by an average 3.2 percent each year over the last three decades. In addition to tuition, students face a number of other “hidden” college costs that can derail those with low-to-middle family incomes from completing their postsecondary education. Such costs may include expenses relating to textbooks and course materials, to other living expenses like housing, food, and transportation.

Without enough savings, family income, or financial aid to cover the full costs of attendance, many undergraduate students – Black and low-income students in particular – rely on loans as an essential means of financing their postsecondary education. While student loans may determine whether or not a student decides to enroll in college, the pressure of keeping up with competing financial obligations experienced once in school can negatively affect persistence. Among students who borrow money for their education, almost a third leave school before earning their degree. This racially and socioeconomically disproportionate prevalence of student indebtedness has meaningful repercussions on equity and student success.

While college affordability is not a traditionally top-line issue for many student affairs professionals, its impact on student success and the increased demand for campus financial supports has challenged the field to play a larger role in addressing this multifaceted challenge. 

Key Areas of Involvement

As institutions work to provide students with robust financial and social support systems, student affairs professionals are addressing aspects of the affordability challenge in the following ways:  

Provide students with accurate, clear, and timely financial information

Equipping students with information as early as possible and on a routine basis can help them best determine how to budget their resources. Research suggests, however, that the living cost estimates provided to students are often inaccurate and do not account for differences in student spending preferences and living situations. While calculating the full cost of attendance is known for its challenges, student affairs practitioners possess the on-the-ground knowledge and creativity needed to work alongside financial aid administrators to give students the financial clarity they need. To get a more accurate picture of off-campus living costs, institutions should supplement student spending survey data with standardized data from local and federal resources. Federal-level benchmark data on housing and food expenditures can be found at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, respectively.

Financially offset the unexpected costs of college

Unforeseen emergency situations can result in students experiencing unmet need for housing, food, transportation, healthcare, or childcare. Without sufficient resources to overcome urgent financial hardships, students may be forced to drop out of school altogether. Many institutions have emergency aid programs that offer financial assistance – often in the form of food pantries, textbook vouchers, and scholarships – to students facing financial constraints and who may otherwise leave the institution. One way student affairs professionals can further their efforts is by learning from the experiences of administrators at other institutions that offer emergency aid services. NASPA’s Student ARC website serves as a robust online resource for institutions looking to identify new approaches to providing emergency aid support.

Expand on-campus student employment opportunities

Working while in school has become a necessity for the majority of students enrolled in a college or university; however finding ways to achieve an adequate work life balance can be considerably difficult. As discussed in a previous post, working in positions located on campus can provide students with a greater sense of financial security, career-readiness, and engagement with the institution. On-campus employment opportunities enable students to receive paychecks while working flexible hours, in positions where they are in close proximity to classes and other student support offices. On-campus employment positions can be especially important for students at rural institutions, since available off-campus jobs may require long commutes and reliable access to transportation. Based on results from a national survey, NASPA will soon offer a report outlining ways institutions can expand and advance their on-campus student employment efforts. As on-campus positions and internships increase in availability and value, student affairs professionals can facilitate outreach and communication efforts to students looking for additional financial support.

Future Considerations

As leaders in student affairs continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of students and institutions, they should consider their role in addressing the underlying drivers of college price. When identifying areas for reduced spending, campuses have historically aimed to protect teaching and research related expenditures seen as central to institutional mission. Without the student affairs voice in the discussion, budgetary decisions intended to improve affordability can result in meaningful cuts to non-academic services and programs critical to student success. Student affairs professionals should be included in important discussions around ways to improve affordability without sacrificing services equally essential to a quality postsecondary education.   

Addressing college affordability should be an institution-wide, cross-functional responsibility. And the value of student affairs practitioners in the advancement of financial student support is being increasingly recognized at colleges and universities across the country. This is an area NASPA wants to further explore, and we are very interested in learning about ways that our members think we can get more involved in this conversation and support campus efforts.