Studies show that students from families with low-income are less likely than students from families with higher-income to complete postsecondary education (Purnell et al. 2004; Muraskin et al. 2004). Students from families with low-incomes often lack the financial resources necessary to complete postsecondary education, and are often unable to rely on their families for any financial assistance or support. As a result, those who do enroll often leave their degree program to earn an income and support themselves and their families (Muraskin et al. 2004). Furthermore, students from families with low-incomes may receive lower-quality K-12 education because they are more likely to attend K-12 schools with fewer resources (Muraskin et al. 2004). In turn, lower-quality K-12 education can limit students’ potential for merit-based financial scholarship or aid (Muraskin et al. 2004).
Recent increases in the overall level of funding available for student financial assistance, in particular the availability of Pell grants for low-income students, increases the saliency of developing better mechanisms to help students take advantage of federal resources. While the number of students applying for and receiving Pell grants has substantially increased since 2007, there remains a significant proportion of potentially eligible students who have not applied for federal aid or whose federal aid package does not include a Pell grant (Mahan, 2011). Earlier research indicates thatstudents often do not take advantage of benefits because of lack of information or because they think their families make too much money to qualify (Choy and Bobbitt 2000). They may also lack strong support systems or mentor figures who can assist and encourage them in seeking services that may help them afford their education. Furthermore, students that are low-income who are receiving financial aid are often still unable to cover costs of living and studying (Choy and Bobbitt 2000). In a study of low-income undergraduate students enrolled in full-time and full-year degree programs, 87 percent experienced unmet need (Choy and Bobbitt 2000). A more recent report (Mahan, 2011) indicates that for low-income students, financial aid, including loans, on average covers about 60 percent of the cost of attending. Students who are low-income and who are parents may be in particular need of child care assistance so that they can attend classes regularly, as well as other benefits that provide income support.
Research suggests that students gather information about financial aid programs through various techniques, such as online searching, informal conversations, and structured programming (Waters 2009), but many need assistance in completing the application because they have questions throughout the process (De la Rosa and Tierney 2007). Whether web-based tools that promote access to other benefits are useful to low-income students may then depend on the extent to which assistance is offered in their use.
Given these barriers and needs, low-income students may benefit from the following:
- Web-based benefits access tools prominently featured on computers in libraries and other public spaces on campus
- Application assistance accessible on site at postsecondary institutions through trained academic and financial aid advisors, faculty, and other staff
- Marketing and education campaigns focusing on eligibility criteria and benefit services available to students