The latest study reveals significant financial challenges facing college students and their ability to achieve academic success, especially amid a pandemic

Round Rock, TX – Only 2% of students at four-year institutions and 6% at two-year institutions relied solely on personal savings and current employment to pay for college. Many students reported turning to educational loans to pay for college, yet they were not confident in their ability to repay them. These are just two of the many important findings in the Trellis’ annual Student Financial Wellness Survey (SFWS) released today.

The SFWS was administered in the fall of 2020, as students were beginning their first full year in the shadow of the pandemic. Trellis added survey questions related to students’ experiences during the pandemic, which provided insights into the economic disruptions students faced, their access to appropriate technology, and the mental toll inflicted on students. The SFWS received responses from nearly 38,000 undergraduate students attending 62 colleges and universities across 13 states. The results are available via a downloadable PDF and in a mobile-friendly version.

This year’s survey dives deeper into various aspects of students’ financial decision-making. Trellis examined internal and external environmental factors, knowledge of paying for higher education, confidence in managing finances, openness to seeking help with financial decisions, and perceived level of institutions’ empathy for (and understanding of) their students’ financial situations.

In addition to important insights and trends in student financial wellness, the report offers actionable “Research to Practice” guidance for higher education practitioners to create programs to better address the financial challenges faced by today’s students that impact their ability to enroll, persist, and complete their higher education.

“Students’ financial wellness has far-reaching implications for their academic success,” said Debra Chromy, president and CEO of Trellis Company. “The SFWS allows schools to glean a better understanding of barriers such as inadequate financial security and the impact on student mental health during the pandemic and what role institutions can play in providing remedies.”

Notable data points from the 2020 Student Financial Wellness Survey include:

  • Students face precarious financial security:
    • Three-quarters of respondents that borrowed at four-year institutions (75 percent) and 72 percent at two-year institutions were not at all confident or only somewhat confident that they would be able to pay off the debt acquired while they were a student.
    • Only a small percentage of students are totally confident in their financial decision-making—eight percent for four-year students and seven percent for students at two-year institutions. An additional 20 percent of students were mostly confident. First-generation students are far more likely to have trouble getting $500 in an emergency (68 percent).
  • Supporting families while in college is an additional hardship for some students:
    • More than half of two-year respondents agreed or strongly agreed that it is important that they support their family, compared to 41 percent of respondents at four-year institutions.
    • Respondents who provided financial support for children tended to experience more hardships than those who were not financially supporting children.
  • Students’ financial situations and mental health worsened because of the COVID-19 pandemic:
    • Fifty-eight percent of two-year respondents and 57 percent of four-year respondents indicated that their family’s financial situation had worsened since the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Fifty-seven percent of two-year respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they had more of an obligation, compared to 51 percent of respondents at four-year institutions.
    • At two-year institutions, 84 percent of respondents reported that the COVID-19 outbreak added to [their] levels of stress, anxiety, or depression. This total was slightly higher at four-year institutions, where nearly nine in ten (88 percent) indicated their mental health had been negatively affected by the pandemic.

“During an academic year, the challenges of students are many,” said Jeff Webster, Director of Research at Trellis and lead author of the report. “The report explores the ways in which students’ financial pressures, educational debt obligations, and basic needs insecurity impede their academic success.”

“While the survey provides concrete indicators that for many students, their financial security is tenuous, it also allows higher education institutions to make a real and timely impact in the lives of their students,” said Webster.

To access or download the full report, please visit

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Donna Fritz, Trellis vice president of marketing, at or (512) 388-6750.


About Trellis Company
Trellis Company is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation with the dual mission of helping student borrowers successfully repay their education loans and promoting access and success in higher education.

For over 40 years, we have had a successful track record of delivering positive outcomes for students and institutions. Our strong philanthropic heritage of giving through grants to colleges, universities, and research groups remains focused on improving student outcomes, assisting underserved students and families, and helping institutions navigate higher education’s changing landscape.

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