Student Financial Security Is Important to Educational Success
On a wintry Saturday morning, Justin Smith leaves the church where he has just made some extra money playing saxophone at a funeral. Smith, 19, performs at weddings, funerals, and parties—any event where he can make a little money. The Governors State University sophomore said he works more than 40 hours per week at a collection of odd jobs, making just enough to carry him from one expense to the next.
“Right now I’m freaking because I have no money for books. I put my last $25 in my gas tank yesterday,” Smith said.
He filled up his car after deciding it was more important to get to school than to buy materials he needs for class. That will have to wait.
These kinds of budget decisions are nerve-wracking for low income college students. Expenses that seem minor to some can be obstacles for those with little or no income or without financial support from their parents. Governors State recognizes that students who struggle to succeed financially often struggle to succeed academically. Dr. Randi Schneider, GSU’s Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management says the university is committed to developing accommodations and processes that will ease the financial burden for all students and help them succeed at GSU.
The most obvious and important result of this commitment is the university’s determination to keep tuition and fees the lowest in the state of Illinois. Maintaining educational excellence while keeping costs down is a challenge the university has successfully met. Student response to this winning combination is evident in GSU’s increasing enrollment numbers.GSU has not stopped there. According to Dr. Randi Schneider, the university realized that the school’s $150 enrollment deposit fee—due before most students’ financial aid comes through—stood in the way of registration for some students.
“When you are deciding to pay for groceries for your family or a deposit to begin registration, you choose groceries. Some of our students were unable to pay the fee, which meant they couldn’t register and continue their education,” Schneider said.
To address this issue, GSU not only reduced the registration deposit to $50, it also reduced the deposit fee for student housing. Changes like these are part of the university’s ongoing efforts to ease the burdens faced by all students.
The university also recognized that low-income students are often the first in their families to go to college. Without people at home familiar with navigating the world of higher education, first generation college students can be at an immediate disadvantage. They can’t get advice at home, but they still require assistance in decoding the world of college. To address the need for additional resources, GSU established a knowledgeable team of advisors to guide students through the often complex process of applying for financial aid. For example, the Offices of Financial Aid and Communications teamed together to remind students to submit their FAFSA early and to educate them on how to do it. Social media was buzzing with hints and reminders, provided valuable advice, and FAFSA completion workshops were well attended.
“The world of college financing can throw students for a loop,” Schneider said. “The first thing students need is access to information. At GSU, we know it is important to have a financial aid office that understands it’s working with individuals who may need extra guidance. We have advisers who are well-versed in helping students meet their individual challenges.”
Early planning is also a critical component in student success. “Unfortunately, students from low-income families sometimes take longer to make decisions about school, because so many assume attending college is not an option,” she said.
A delay like this has an impact in the world of higher education where early financial education and planning are critical to student success. Data shows that students who tend not to consider themselves college bound initially, may miss important deadlines for admissions, financial aid, and scholarship applications.
The youngest of 12 children, Smith said he didn’t think he’d go to college. His parents encouraged him to go, but they never talked about where tuition money would come from. “One day my older brother said, ‘Keep filling out those grant applications because nobody here has any money to send you to college,’” said Smith. “That was the first time it was really presented to me.”
In an attempt to reach newly admitted and currently enrolled students with information about important application and payment deadlines, GSU uses a combination of methods to get the word out. Using old and new technologies, combining digital communication and social media with snail mail and campus message boards, the university keeps students informed.
In addition to providing students with pertinent information, guidance, and encouragement, the university also offers concrete support.
“We made a huge dent in the hunger issue with the new food plan,” Schneider said.
There are many college students across the country, Schneider noted, who don’t have enough money for food. In response to that need, the GSU Student Senate opened a student food bank. An ongoing food drive on campus stocks the shelves, and twice a week students can receive a bag of groceries.
Another issue facing students who rely heavily on financial aid to support their education is the lack of funds available at the end of the semester to pay a final bill. An outstanding invoice with the university means that they are unable to register for classes in the new semester or secure an official transcript.
“If students have a balance, they have two choices: not go back to school or figure out how they’re going to pay that balance,” Schneider said.
In an effort to reach students before this becomes an issue, GSU advisors work closely with students identified as still having a balance as the end of a semester nears. By ensuring that the students have accessed all avenues of financial assistance, submitted all necessary paperwork, and investigated alternative solutions, advisors help students meet their financial commitment so they are free to register for classes in the new semester.
Despite the many obstacles students face, Schneider said it’s exciting to see students succeed regardless of their income and gratifying to be part of an organization dedicated to helping them succeed.
Though Smith is relieved to be paid up with tuition right now, the pressure is never off. He keeps applying for grants and wants to get a better job. He recently changed his major from music to business in order to qualify for more scholarships. Utilizing a combination of grants, loans, and wages to achieve his goal of an education, Smith plans to open a jazz club in the south suburbs after graduation.
“I have to think about what’s next,” he said. “I really want to go all the way. I want to be that story.”