Report Identifies Tuition, Aid Strategies To Help Low-Income Students

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff 

Public four-year universities can increase college affordability for low-income students through tuition and financial aid policies, according to a recent paper that outlines several strategies institutions have taken with promising results.

The paper was issued July 31 by HCM Strategies and authored by Sandy Baum of The Urban Institute and George Washington University, Marie McDemmond, president emeritus at Norfolk State University, and Gigi Jones with the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences.

It outlines five tuition policies and six financial aid approaches taken by colleges to reduce financial barriers for low-income students and discusses how institutional leaders can implement similar policies on their campuses.

“No single strategy rises to the top as an approach both feasible within financial aid and regulatory constraints facing public universities and supported by strong evidence about effectiveness in improving student outcomes,” the report notes. 

And while the report is not an exhaustive analysis, the authors’ aim “is to identify innovative tuition and financial aid strategies as a way to start a conversation across these institutions and to provide a framework for comprehensive public universities to develop their own initiatives.”

Whether a school is able or willing to consider any of the ideas in the report depends on the circumstances of the institutions. However, the authors identify several broad guidelines applicable to all institutions, including: 

  • Enrollment patterns are impacted by tuition policies, which then affect the overall price of a college education. Students who graduate more quickly are able to save on tuition, earn money, and save the institution money;
  • It is most effective to direct financial aid funds to students with significant need rather than focusing on changing the profile of the entering class, as high-need students are more like to be affected by small changes in price than their peers from wealthier backgrounds;
  • Financial aid programs can increase academic progress by providing incentives and opportunities, such as attaching a portion of aid to progress toward a degree or combining it with access to academic and other student support services;
  • “Complexity interferes with effectiveness,” particularly with student aid programs; and
  • Policies that subsidize patterns already common among the student body are likely to be expensive relative to their impact, as many students will be rewarded for choices they would have made regardless of the incentives.

The report highlights five tuition-related strategies that could increase student access and improve college affordability:

  1. Implement block tuition programs, which would allow students to enroll for enough credit hours per semester to graduate on time without incurring extra cost;
  2. Tack on additional charges for students who accumulate many more credits than are needed to graduate;
  3. Offer “flexible tuition payment plans that would allow students to make installment payments rather than one lump sum;”
  4. Offer tuition guarantees that ensure the cost of college remains the same for those enrolled for four consecutive years; and
  5. Give partial tuition rebates for students who graduate or complete their programs on-time.

The report also highlights six financial aid policies that have the potential to improve affordability and increase student success:

  1. Tying a component of need-based aid to academic progress and rewarding students for timely course completion;
  2. “Tying institutional financial aid to participation in academic and other support services on campus;”
  3. Implementing an emergency aid program that students can access when faced with unexpected financial difficulties;
  4. Assisting students with children by facilitating child care arrangements and providing information, subsidies, or possible on-campus care;
  5. Disbursing financial aid periodically over the term instead of as one lump sum, which would assist with money management and provide incentives for students to remain in good academic standing; and 
  6. “Assisting student with gaining access to the public income support programs for which they are eligible.”

The authors encourage schools to use the information contained within the report as a jumping off point for innovative conversations about what can be done to breakdown barriers faced by low-income students. As the authors note, at present there is very little information available about the effectiveness of such programs.  As institutions implement or modify their efforts to improve student outcomes, the authors encourage schools to create ways by which to measure their effectiveness so that the higher education community can benefit from the lessons learned.


Publication Date: 8/7/2014

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