For many students, working part- or full-time still remains a vital part of paying for college. But when federal student loans, scholarships, grants, and work-study jobs fail to cover what’s left of the cost of attendance, an excessive unmet need is created. Unmet need forms yet another obstacle for both the students working toward graduation and the institutions working to retain them.
Trellis examined this issue in its recently released State of Student Aid and Higher Education in Texas (SOSA) report. Updated annually, Trellis’ SOSA report serves as a key resource guide for college and college-readiness statistics across Texas’ seven economically and demographically diverse regions. The report’s findings on student need and labor also make use of national data and surveys, shedding light on the current circumstances of working students.
Today, unmet need exceeds Texas college students’ expected family contributions
Unmet need is defined as a student’s cost of attendance minus his or her expected family contribution (EFC) and all financial aid, such as grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans. This is the amount that students and/or their families must cover out-of-pocket.
Average Unmet Need for Students in Texas by Income Category and Sector (Fall 2018)
In Texas, the lowest-income students tend to have the highest unmet need. In 2018, average unmet need for this group was $10,174 statewide, or over $1,000 per month over the course of the nine-month school year. While lower-income students may gravitate to lower-cost institutions, such as public two-year schools, they can still face an unmet need similar to that of students at public four-year schools. The average low-income community college student in Texas also had over $1,000 per month in unmet need over their nine-month school year.
Tips for Supporting Students with Unmet Need
- Refer students to resources for appealing financial aid offers. This can help underserved students advocate for themselves.
- Connect students to public benefit services. Help de-stigmatize the process and guide students through the complex eligibility requirements and applications.
Texas students with unmet need are less likely to graduate and may accumulate more loan debt
When unmet need exceeds expected family contribution, students are faced with finding alternate ways to cover the out-of-pocket costs of their education. This may mean seeking additional student loans or working extra hours to fill in the gaps.
For students who choose to work to meet the financial gap, their choices can bring additional challenges. Students who take on more work hours on top of a full course load can experience increased stress on their lives, schedules, and academic performance. For students who take fewer classes in order to work more hours, any unsubsidized loans that they may take out continue to accrue interest, pulling them deeper into student loan debt.
Graduation Status by Unmet Need Amount, 2012-2013 Public Texas High School Graduates Enrolled in Fall 2014 in Texas Higher Education
Perhaps unsurprisingly, university students in Texas who had no unmet need were more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree than their peers who had unmet need. Over half of students with no unmet need had graduated within six years of initially enrolling in college, compared to 38 percent of students with unmet need below $4,000, 31 percent with unmet need between $4,000 and $9,999, and 39 percent with unmet need of $10,000 or higher.
Tips for keeping students on track to graduation
- Refer students to any emergency grants or your specific institution’s resources for improving student financial wellness. Emergencies and unexpected expenses can throw a student off-course academically, especially if they have a large unmet need.
- Provide accessible tutoring, either virtually or in-person. Getting help or just getting ahead on course material can help working students make satisfactory academic progress toward their degree.
- Meet with students at least once per semester. Regular meetings can give you a chance to work with students through any scheduling, degree planning, and overall academic issues they may have.
All the while, federal need-based aid fails to keep up.
Designed to be the foundation of need-based grant aid, the Pell Grant is the largest grant program in the U.S. and in Texas. Even though the average Pell grant tends to increase from one year to the next, these increases have historically failed to keep pace with increases in the cost of college. This has resulted in Pell Grants having less and less buying power over the last 30 years.
Total Cost of Attendance for Two Semesters Full-time Attendance at Texas Public Institutions Covered by Average Pell Grant Amount, by Sector (AY 2018-2019)
For example, in 2018–2019, the average Pell grant in Texas covered only 19 percent of the average cost of attendance (COA) – i.e. tuition, fees, room, board, and other basic expenses — for eligible undergraduates at public four-year universities and public two-year colleges in Texas.
Tips for helping students supplement their federal aid
- Point students toward scholarship search tools. College Board’s Scholarship Search and similar scholarship search engines can empower students to find money for college outside of your institution and the FAFSA.
- Encourage students to look locally for financial aid money. This can limit the amount of other students they’re competing with for scholarships and grants, compared to national and even statewide opportunities.
Will work for education: paying for a degree with money earned
Overall, a third of undergraduates across the nation are working at least 30 hours per week to pay for school and cover their unmet need. While less than a quarter of students at private and public four-year schools in Texas worked 30 hours or more per week, that number is 40 percent for community college students.
No doubt, these students are likely working and utilizing using other forms of financial aid to pay for school—but what would it take for a student today to pay for their education in the same way students 40 years ago could?
In 2018-2019, an in-state, residential undergraduate would have had to work 68 hours every week of the year to pay the cost of attendance for two semesters at a Texas public university. For two semesters at a Texas community college, they’d need to work 54 hours.
Hours of Minimum Wage Work per Week Needed to Pay for an Average Undergraduate Education in Texas, by Sector (2003 to 2018)
Pulling off this kind of schedule, even for an industrious student, is herculean. What’s more, these numbers are a slight increase from the previous year and a continuation of the upward trend beginning in 2010, which reflects the end of the most recent period of annual federal minimum wage increases (2006-2009).
Tips to support working students
- Let students use you as a reference and provide them with letters of recommendation. References and letters of recommendation are critical for students looking to secure gainful employment.
- Refer students to on-campus work or work-study jobs, if possible. These jobs can usually fit more flexibly around a student’s course schedule if they need to work to make up unmet need.
- Offer late or evening courses and office hours. Many working students will need to work anywhere from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and offering instruction hours later in the day can help them both work and succeed in college.
Where do we go from here?
The numbers show that obtaining a higher education is getting costlier for students, while working to pay for it without incurring student loan debt is becoming less viable. Policymakers and student success stakeholders who design higher education policies can leverage the data around student work and need found in the SOSA to make informed decisions and recommendations. For additional reference, all information sources on this issue can be found within the SOSA report.
A 54- or 68-hour workweek exceeds the expectations, and often the capacity, for many working professionals. Consider adding on top a full college course load. College students are faced with less ability to pay for school through work alone, relying on other forms of financial aid, including student loan debt. While there are legislative efforts currently underway to increase the cap amount on Pell Grants, the failure of these need-based sources of aid to keep pace with the rising costs of higher education could lead to more college debt and debt-wary students deciding not to enroll in the first place.