The costs of college start with tuition, room, and board, but extend far beyond that to books and supplies, co-curricular costs, and fees to participate in educational experiences like study abroad. For some students, these costs can restrict their ability to enjoy all the benefits of the college experience, and cause worries that interfere with their ability to stay focused and to thrive in college.
Denison students have shared these concerns, and about four years ago the college began an extensive study to better understand students’ financial experiences and, especially, to learn more about financial barriers that stood in their way.
“Students were sharing with us that their financial situations were impacting their ability to take advantage of important parts of the college experience, like getting internships and sometimes even things like buying all the books required for a class,” says Laurel Kennedy, vice president of student development. “Those conversations fueled our desire to understand, in a more comprehensive way, the financial realities and needs of students.”
In response to these needs, Julie Tucker, who leads Student Development’s research work, interviewed students to understand their day-to-day experiences and dug into reams of institutional data. Assessing all this quantitative and qualitative data, she found that students with fewer economic resources were less likely to participate in fee-bearing opportunities, including sorority and fraternity life, courses with additional fees, and club sports.
The study also uncovered the extent to which students struggle with basic needs like transportation to and from home, professional attire for job and internship interviews, paying for and accessing medical care, and managing unanticipated urgent expenses.
Denison is responding to these urgent needs, researching and implementing various solutions. The college’s comprehensive approach to addressing these needs starts with a mindset shift.
“Once we had a deep understanding of the barriers students face, we realized our approach couldn’t be solely focused on establishing programs and making resources available,” says Kennedy.
“As a campus community, we had to relook at everything through the lens of the student experience. What was inspiring was that, as we shared the information, it was clear that, across different groups, there were lots of faculty and staff who wanted to be part of solving the problems, within the areas where they had some control,” she adds.
The work has rippled across the campus and is still ongoing. And while significant progress has been made, more work remains as Denison continues to identify opportunities to invest in the success of all students — especially those who face economic barriers.
Perhaps the most obvious, and maybe the most important, way institutions support students’ financial well-being is through their financial aid package. Many colleges admit low-income students and only meet part of their demonstrated financial aid. Denison changed its model in 2017 and is now one of only a few colleges that meet the full demonstrated financial aid need of every student accepted. In 2018, Denison awarded nearly $66 million in need-based financial aid and merit-based scholarships.
It is thanks to the college’s generous alumni that Denison has a rare ability to meet the full demonstrated financial aid need of every student — and this work is never done. Financial aid is and will remain Denison’s top fundraising focus.
However, as noted previously, college expenses extend beyond what financial aid packages cover.
“After hearing student stories about struggling with college and life expenses, our alumni moved quickly to establish the Red Thread Grant,” says Kennedy. “Red Thread Grants provide financial support to help alleviate financial hardships like medical expenses, winter coats, career preparation costs, and to provide financial access to opportunities students otherwise couldn’t participate in.”
Red Thread is funded by alumni and the name symbolizes the connection between generations of Denisonians — alumni providing funding for current students, with the hope that recipients will one day, as alums themselves, provide financial support to future students — thus the red thread that ties all Denisonians together.
Red Thread has helped hundreds of students with varying needs, including new tires, winter clothing, club fees, service trip fees, application and test fees (GRE, MCAT), test prep materials, teacher licensure fees, medical expenses, dental work, and even eyeglasses. In the 2018-2019 academic year, 68 Red Thread micro-grants were given to support students.
“Once we had a deep understanding of the barriers students face, we realized our approach couldn’t be solely focused on establishing programs and making resources available.”
A third financial consideration is the cost of books, which students shared can be prohibitive and impact their ability to pursue certain courses or areas of study. Denison has increased annual book grants from $650 to $1,000 and raised student budgets to help offset the costs of copying course material. Also, to ensure book costs are competitive, the Denison Bookstore conducted a review of book prices compared to online retailers (Amazon and Chegg) and adjusted the pricing of new books.
And this is just a start, as faculty continue to investigate ways to reduce textbook costs — with one professor eliminating textbooks from his course altogether. Students have shared their appreciation for this work, not just for the increased budgets and reduced book prices but especially for the increased awareness by professors.
Housing during breaks and food security also can prove to be significant financial barriers. Some students are unable to return home during school break periods, leaving them without housing options during these periods. Denison has broadened its access to housing for Thanksgiving and Spring breaks and is exploring ways to provide more access during Winter breaks as well. Denison added a food security meal plan and has opened a food pantry to ensure free or reduced meal access for students.
Improving Campus Employment, Career Preparation & Launch Support
It became clear through student interviews that low-income students can have different needs and face specific barriers related to career preparation and launch. In response, Denison’s career center added a full-time staff member dedicated to supporting first-generation and low-income students.
An additional frustration for students is that desirable internships are often low or no-pay, making them impractical for students who need steady employment income. Denison now provides funding for many student internships. In 2019, the career center awarded more than $600 thousand in summer internship stipends.
Many students rely on campus jobs to pay for expenses and even help support their families at home. Students shared that restrictive employment hours guidelines impacted their ability to balance campus jobs with course work demands. As a result, Denison changed student employment guidelines to introduce more flexibility, enabling students to better manage their work hours throughout the semester based on their schedule and class workload.
In addition, the First-Year Office made information about campus jobs a key part of student orientation so that even before they start school, first-year students are clear about how to obtain a campus job. Finally, Denison is focused on maximizing the benefit of campus employment.
“Campus jobs can provide valuable, internship-like experiences,” says Hank Malin, executive director of the Knowlton Center for Career Exploration. “We’ve developed resources and provided coaching across campus to those who employ students on how they can help those students gain professional skills through their campus employment.”
Campus Information and Process Improvements
Information about available resources and the processes for obtaining support can sometimes be confusing. Thanks to student feedback, Denison realized its website information needed an overhaul and enlisted students to read through and provide feedback on content, identifying sections that were unclear, incomplete, or inaccessible.
“Students helped us realize we had written the website based on our decades of experience with financial language and processes, making some of the information difficult for them to understand and navigate,” says Ginny Sharkey, director of news for University Communications. “With their invaluable insight, we redesigned the financial aid/student accounts websites, which are now simpler to navigate and written in a more student-friendly way. In fact, the two offices also have been co-located physically to make in-person transactions even easier and more fluid for students.”
Information about Red Thread Grants and funding resources also has been made more readily available to students, and financial well-being information is included in the monthly student wellness newsletter.
Finally, Denison has clarified and made consistent funding eligibility definitions and uses for which students might receive emergency loans or grants. Previously, various campus offices defined “need” in multiple ways, making processes confusing for students and access to funds inconsistent.
An Increase in Financial Literacy and Health Resources
A Financial Wellness Counselor is a new and dedicated resource to support students in obtaining financial literacy. The counselor advises students on how to manage their financial decisions, both during and after college, and provides financial literacy education on a multitude of topics, including first-year finances, budgeting, saving, understanding credit, and more. This is important information to share campus wide, so Denison has invested significantly in student financial well-being education.
The Polk Family Director of Student Health & Wellness Dustin Brentlinger remarks, “For students without health insurance, accessing medical care can be difficult to impossible. Sometimes, students won’t seek care because they’re worried about the possibility of a charge they can’t afford. Our staff is doing more to provide information and to educate even when the questions aren’t asked. We’ve also significantly reduced or eliminated the cost of some services at the wellness center and some Red Thread grant money is specifically earmarked to support students’ health-related expenses.”
Through the wellness center, Denison also is ensuring students have access to off-campus resources and partnering with outside medical providers for low-cost access to services. As a result of these initiatives, more students are taking advantage of the wellness center and have shared they feel more comfortable seeking medical care without fear of the inability to pay.
“We’re grateful for those early conversations with students that sparked campus-wide action,” Tucker says. “While the individual steps we’ve taken are important, what’s most valuable is the thinking that underlies them. We are more aware of student financial needs and we’re having important conversations across campus about how we can better support students. There is more work to do and we’re committed to it as a campus community.”