Whether or not your college intentionally sought to attract first-generation students or those from under-resourced backgrounds, they are appearing on campuses this fall in droves. According to a Pew Research Center study, As many as 25% or more of the incoming student body arrives not knowing what works to survive in the college/university environment. Consequently, many won’t be back for the next semester, much less a second year. The statistics clearly demonstrate our industry’s failure to meaningfully support under-resourced students. How can we better support their adjustment to our alien landscape? It’s not for want of effort; it’s for want of efficacy. Let’s consider a major barrier—the financial aid process—and the shifts in personal relationships that inevitably occur when people try to make changes.

Close your eyes and recall how you felt the first time (maybe every time!) you sat down to do your income taxes. Did you feel fear, dread, anxiety, and maybe stupid and ashamed for not knowing the process and the terminology? If you could have gotten out of doing it, would you have? Our students feel the same way about the financial aid process, and sadly, their reactions often sabotage their dreams. Minor adjustments in our approach can make big differences.

Advice that’s specific to an individual’s situation is key. When PELL grants, federal loans, scholarships, and the like are described in the abstract, under-resourced students don’t have a frame of reference by which to apply it to themselves. Work with the student as an ally, side by side, and pencil out the cost of tuition, fees, housing, food, books, transportation, and so on. Then tally up the grants and scholarships known to be applicable, and subtract from that total bill. Progress? Then add on additional grants and scholarships they can apply for, and do the math again. When there’s still a “balance due,” explore guaranteed and private loans. Make this very concrete by mapping out on a calendar due date for applications and due dates for balances on bills.

This is also the time to address the taboos about student debt that have been tattooed upon their brain in recent years. Build their future story by comparing the projected investment (debt) against the future earnings associated with their degree path. Make it concrete by using play money to demonstrate that they can indeed afford to pay their student loan out of the stack of cash representing a month’s future wages. Have some fun talking about what else they’re going to spend that income on. What sort of house or apartment? In what neighborhood? What kind of car? What are they going to do on weekends after they graduate? Where will they go for their first vacation?

Don’t be afraid to talk about the elephant in the room, the elephant that thrives in the environment of poverty—the elephant that likes to spend and lend money. Students might want to take out more loans than necessary to fulfil certain wants needs and desires. Don’t judge, but use the same methods to show what the additional debt will do to their future story. Make explicit that these are decisions they control. Likewise, explicitly explore whether there are friends and family who are eager to borrow off the student’s refund check. Listen to what the student has to say about who these people are and why they are important before looking at the impact giving away their financial aid will have on their tuition bill. Role-play with the actual language they might use with a parent or sibling asking to borrow.

Recognize that this is hard stuff and that nobody likes feeling stupid or talking about not having the money they need to do what they want. Revisit and repeat all of the above in orientation, and again during the first semester when planning for next year. And revisit again and again to see how the student’s understanding of their financial path is evolving.

Learn more by participating in two upcoming training options: Understanding and Engaging Under-Resourced College Students Workshop, September 16, and, College Achievement Alliance Trainer Certification, starting October 5.


Fry, R., & Cilluffo, A. (2019). A rising share of undergraduates are from poor families, especially at less selective colleges. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.