How can communities provide holistic financial support for low-income students?

February 2016

College affordability is central to any discussion about the completion agenda. Although nearly all households worry about how to pay for college, costs pose an even higher hurdle for low-income students. Although traditional financial aid resources like grants, scholarships, and loans can address tuition and fees, they fail to holistically address the costs students incur before they even set foot on campus. Housing, food, transportation, and childcare are all significant expenses that many students must consider in order to make college a realistic option. Class schedules also limit the hours that students can work to cover these costs, which can stop students in their tracks just as much as tuition bills do.

Improving postsecondary access and success requires reimagining financial supports for low-income students. Campuses can work to better understand who their low-income students are, what financial hurdles those students routinely encounter, where institutional resources can best be targeted, and how their institutional processes and policies may have unintended impact on low-income student access and persistence. 

Institutions can also help connect students with public and community resources that can fill in the gaps. Nonprofits working with low-income communities should consider extending their reach to students on campus. Below are a few examples of intervention strategies that stakeholders can use to make college more affordable for low-income students.

Linking Campus and Community Resources: Does your community want to bundle critical financial resources to improve access for low-income students? Bundling resources like food assistance and family health care with campus services like legal aid and career coaching can provide students with holistic support—in both their on- and off-campus lives—and may make them more likely to access services.

Audit Institutional Policies and Processes: Does your campus want to evaluate its administrative processes to identify any unintended financial barriers to low-income students? Student academic or financial policies, processes, and deadlines may have unintended consequences for low-income students. Review your institution’s administrative practices from the lens of a low-income student and consider updates or modifications as appropriate to respond to needless barriers.

Campus–Community Partnerships to Support Low-Income Student Well-Being: Does your community want to develop a coalition of campus, civic, and nonprofit organizations in support of low-income students? Consider investing the time in developing a coalition of campus, civic, faith-based, and nonprofit organizations with a shared interest in low-income student well-being. Partnerships like these can further strengthen and expand networks of care and make it more likely that low-income students won’t fall through the cracks.

This chapter profiles the Beyond Financial Aid guidebook, a resource developed by Lumina Foundation that helps campuses build their capacity to strengthen the financial stability of students. 

This chapter ends with a list of additional resources that you can use to find more information about making college more affordable for low-income students. 

Beyond Financial Aid Profile

Beyond Financial Aid:

An Approach to Meeting Students’ Unmet Financial Need

Even after receiving financial aid, many low-income students have an unmet financial need that can significantly contribute to their failure to complete educational goals. Institutions can mitigate this unmet financial need by integrating supports that enable students to address the broader spectrum of financial hardships—nutrition, housing, transportation, and childcare, as well as financial, tax, and legal services—while providing greater academic supports.

The Beyond Financial Aid (BFA) guidebook is designed to support community colleges and four-year institutions in facilitating discussions about strengthening students’ financial stability in order to improve student success and completion. The centerpiece of BFA is an institutional self-assessment that can help campuses assess existing efforts and identify strategies to build their capacity to strengthen the financial stability of students.

In addition to the self-assessment, BFA includes a primer that makes the case for broader financial supports and lays out a framework of six concrete strategies for providing this support— strategies distilled from best and promising practices at colleges across the country.


  1. Know the low-income students at your institution by reviewing quantitative and qualitative institutional data to better understand their experiences. 
  2. Provide supports to help low-income students overcome practical barriers by bundling diverse on-campus and off-campus resources and centralizing their access. 
  3. Leverage external partnerships for service delivery by connecting with groups that have shared missions and values and can help bring services to students. 
  4. Empower low-income students to use available resources by normalizing the use of financial supports. Also, consider opt-out versus opt-in models. 
  5. Review your internal processes from the student’s perspective. This can uncover unintended impacts and suggest ways to revise and streamline processes and policies. 
  6. Implement other effective practices that strengthen the academic progression of all students, knowing that these practices can make a greater difference for low-income students.

To learn more, visit the BFA website at where you can (1) browse the BFA website and materials, (2) sign up for periodic updates delivered straight to your inbox, (3) join the BFA electronic mailing list, (4) listen to archived webinars and obtain resources, (5) provide feedback on BFA through a brief survey, and (6) share your college story. Please e-mail if you have any questions or would like assistance in adopting and implementing BFA strategies.

Chapter 4 Download

Additional Resources

College Affordability and Transparency Center [2015: U.S. Department of Education]

This resource spotlights institutions with the highest and lowest tuition and net price. Students and families can also search for costs across several types of institutions, including public and private, for-profit and nonprofit, and four-year and two-year programs.

College Affordability: What Is It and How Can We Measure It? [2014: Lumina Foundation]

This paper takes a student-centered approach at moving toward a more meaningful understanding of financial accessibility of postsecondary education for students in different circumstances. It proposes defining and tracking an integrated set of metrics over time to monitor changes in college affordability.

College Affordability for Low-Income Adults [2014: Institute for Women’s Policy Research]

This report argues that affordability must expand beyond a singular focus on cost to reflect the variety of circumstances that may affect low-income students’ decisions to enter college and succeed. As low-income students are more likely to be financially independent, to be first-generation students, to be students of color, and to be parents, they have greater time constraints, less access to relevant postsecondary information, more unmet needs, more health challenges, and a higher likelihood of serious material scarcity.