Serving Low Income Students: Insights from the 2019 Niche College Applicant Survey of Student Confidence and Concerns

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This is the third in a series of segmented insights from the 2019 Niche College Applicant Survey of Student Confidence and Concerns. To look at the behavior, concerns, and confidence of low income students, Niche focused on those reporting that they are from families in the bottom third of household incomes ( Less than $44,000/year). While they shared many similarities and there was significant crossover, low income and first-generation students are different groups. A slim majority, 52%, of low income students were first in their family to attend college. Only 16% of the highest income students were first-generation students. 

The results mirror other research showing GPA closely related to family income. Low income students were half as likely to have a GPA over 4.0 and almost nine times as likely to have a GPA below a 2.5. With so many scholarships and grants tied to GPA it’s easy to believe that this will only exacerbate the challenges of funding a college education.

Differences During the Search and Application Stages

The type of institution being considered differed for low income students. They were over three times as likely to want to attend an HBCU, but were 36% less likely to be interested in attending a religiously affiliated institution. They were also more likely to say that the setting didn’t matter, 33% compared to 25%. They were also much more likely to have considered a community college. The majority of low income students, 57%, considered a two-year program. 

57.4% of students from low income households considered a community college while only 34.1% of students from high income families did.

They were 47% more likely to say that the cost to apply was a burden. While many schools offer fee waivers, it requires the student to identify that they need support and that may create additional anxiety for them. They may also be concerned about it decreasing their likelihood to be accepted. 

Cost was the biggest burden for low income students, and what set them apart from their high income peers.

Differences During the Enrollment Stage

The biggest difference between students in the lowest and highest third of incomes was in their need to work while enrolled. Low income students were twice as likely to be working full time and were less likely to be unsure if they would be working while enrolled. They were slightly more likely to take out a loan during their first year, but nearly half as likely to take out loans over $20,000 and were overall more likely to know whether they would be taking out a loan or not.

Low income students are more likely to take out loans, but in smaller amounts.

 Low income students also exhibited less confidence in all five questions compared to their high income peers. The largest differences were in their confidence that they could afford the institution that they had chosen to enroll at and whether or not they were prepared. They were still very confident that they would graduate on time, would be prepared for success, and would get a job after graduation, but at a slightly lower rate than their peers.

Low income students were less confident in every category, least so that they could afford the institution at which they had chosen to enroll.

Using the Results

Low income students did have some overlapping needs and behaviors with first-generation students, but they are not the same. When reaching out and helping to guide them through the search, application, and enrollment process, offices should work to remove financial barriers and support them applying for financial aid. For those working in a high school, free and reduced lunch programs are an easy way to identify students early and start working with them to set realistic goals and start a pathway to success in finding funding. It can be more difficult in higher education. You will either have to wait for FAFSA information or have students self-identify. 

The gap in student confidence can be combated with mentorship and sharing stories of students and alumni who came from low income households and succeeded. Don’t sugar coat it though; if they struggled and found ways to succeed those troubles should be included. Connect students with financial aid staff and social services on campus early in the process. Make sure they’re aware of food banks or clothing options without them having to ask. 

Since the cost to apply was a burden for so many students, campuses should have serious discussions about eliminating application fees without requiring students to request waivers. The majority of students from low income households considered two-year programs as well, so transfer articulations and clear financial aid and application processes are important for them. 

Segmented Analyses

Will Patch

Will Patch is the Enrollment Marketing Leader at Niche and helps clients with their enrollment strategies and digital outreach. He also shares insights and research on the Enrollment Insights blog and through webinars and a monthly newsletter. Prior to coming to Niche in the summer of 2019, he served Manchester University for 9 years in roles including Digital Strategist, Social Media Coordinator, and Associate Director for Admissions Operations. Outside of Niche, Will also coordinates the #EMChat community on Twitter, with weekly chats Thursdays at 9:00 PM Eastern.
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