The Exodus: Student Retention and Finance

The other shoe is dropping on students regarding financial aid.

Posted May 23, 2009

That sound you heard is the other shoe dropping in the economic crisis and promptly bouncing up to hit college students in the head. One of the consequences is that an undergraduate student at my school will NOT be returning next year. The financial picture of his family has taken such a downturn that they now are not in a position to provide some assistance. In turn, he alone is unable to make up the difference through his own efforts. He's already working long hours while carrying a full course load. This is one student that we know about. How many more will just quietly slip off the collegiate radar screen? Which hallowed halls will have a more resonant echo due this loss?

Much of the recent media attention has focused on the difficulties that high school students and their families are facing in order to finance a college education in whole or part. The topic of student retention has been kept out of the public view though it is of great concern for university and college administrators. Many are working tirelessly with their staffs to develop creative solutions for incoming students as well as returning students but there still seems too be a gap which may need to be filled by private student loans. Yet and still, the credit markets have not loosened to the point that students who are already considered high risk loan applicants have been able to access the necessary funds to pay for tuition, no less other college costs.

In order to alleviate these costs, the public has put forth widely varying suggestions. Each idea is conceptualized to relieve the overall costs of a college degree. Some have offered the proposal that students live at home and commute to a local college or university. There is a contingent of students who have made that very decision to deter college costs. What they spend on transportation costs is easily covered by the savings in room and board. For those in rural areas of the country, there may not be enough of a savings to warrant the decision. For still others, this option is a non-starter because their families have already lost their jobs and in turn their homes so other necessities are going to take priority.

A further proposal that works on this same line of thought is for current college students to transfer to less expensive schools. Yet there is a little known financial consequence to this transfer. When a student transfers to another higher educational institution, they fall to the bottom of the financial aid list. After the financial aids needs of everyone else in the student population have been addressed, the transfer students' needs for aid are considered. So what at first glance appears to be a frugal alternative for achieving a college degree, in the end may not make the best option for funding.

Another suggestion has been to pursue more scholarships or grants to supplement the costs. This is a laudable alternative but it does come with a caveat. Most scholarship type support requires the maintenance of a high GPA in order to have subsequent eligibility. In pursuit of a degree, the general recommendation is that for every credit hour of a course that a student spends 3 - 4 hours per week in preparation. Therefore, a three credit course would entail 9 - 12 hours of preparation. Increase that to reflect a full-time course load of 12 credits (as defined by the Federal Financial Aid Guidelines), this student is supposed to spend 36 - 48 hours per week outside of class in preparation. This will vary based on the demands of the course with some courses, such as courses with lab segments or more advanced courses in particular disciplines. Therefore, additional working hours may help stem the tide of financial need in one aspect however possibly compromise the academic achievement which provides another avenue for financial aid. Given this reference point, it may serve as a reality check for these ideas.

As the economy continues its downward spiral, college students are facing a more complicated landscape which will require more effort and insight to negotiate.

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