Sometimes things can get in the way of a student’s success in college—things having nothing to do with academic preparation, determination to succeed, or the number of hours spent studying. Sometimes a student’s ability to thrive in college is compromised by finances. While colleges are explicit about some costs, like tuition, room and board, those are not the only expenses that students encounter on their way to a degree, nor are they the only financial barriers students experience in college.
After being approached by two students who were experiencing financial difficulty due to a particular campus policy, we hypothesized that these hindrances probably weren’t the only barriers students faced to their financial well-being. Because financial well-being, like mental and physical well-being, is so intimately connected to students’ ability to succeed in college, it was important to Denison that we identify and mitigate financial barriers to student success.
Shortly after being approached by those two students, we designed a project to examine and dismantle the barriers to students’ financial well-being, engaging students in conversation about their experience. We wrote a summary of those barriers, ranging from our policy limiting the number of hours a student could work on campus to high textbook costs, to difficulty accessing fee-bearing curricular and co-curricular activities.
We shared these stories with nearly every group imaginable—senior leaders as well as faculty, staff, and committees across the college—always centering the conversation on identifying actions we could take to support students and to address the barriers students faced. And then after these conversations, we jumped to action.
As we look back a year later, we are proud of the swift changes we’ve made in response to students’ voices. Some of the changes were nearly costless to implement: being more flexible with our student employment policy, being more explicit about how and where to apply for a campus job, adjusting meal plan disbursement for food security purposes, launching financial literacy programs, adjusting the tone of emails to be more student-centered, and allowing students with financial need to stay on campus during breaks, just to name a few.
Some of the changes, though, did require an investment of capital, like increasing our book grants by over 50%. Through the generous support of an alumnus, we created the Red Thread Grant dedicated to supporting student participation in various fee-bearing on-campus activities while also supporting any unanticipated hardships (medical bills, dental care, eyeglasses, transportation, clothing for interviews, etc.)
One of the major narratives we heard from students was the difficulty of navigating a college campus. Students struggled to discern which office manages what or to decipher written materials or website content. To address this, we’ve made the financial sections of our website more comprehensible for students. In addition, throughout conversations with students and subsequently with faculty and staff, it became clear that students need a person, and a clearly-identified place to have these conversations about their finances. They want a financial counselor or coach to walk them through their options, to help them make informed, educated choices. Similarly, young alumni also indicate that financial literacy education during college would be valuable for their post-Denison success. In response to student and alumni voices, we are working to reorient the work of the Office of Financial Aid. In addition to a traditional focus on aid disbursement, the office is broadening its scope to include supporting students’ financial wellness and literacy. We’ve also hired a part-time staff member devoted to providing financial literacy education as well as individual financial counseling to students.
As the demography of our student body continues to evolve, it’s imperative that we, as an institution, continue to examine the student experience to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of today’s student population. Hearing directly from students about their experiences allowed us to design solutions to address financial barriers students faced, thus improving students’ overall experience and increasing their ability to thrive and flourish while in college.