Low-income community college students’ perceptions of financial aid and factors that influenced their decision to not apply for need based aid
Dement, Marilyn Christine
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While a potential student may have the intellectual ability and internal motivation to pursue a postsecondary credential, having the financial means to cover the costs of tuition, fees, and living expenses, is often a barrier to achieving their educational goal. Over the past half century, billions of dollars in federal and state financial aid have been allocated in the United States in the form of need-based aid to support economically disadvantaged students in their pursuit of a postsecondary education. However, despite the availability of funds to financially support students, a significant number of potentially eligible students each year opt not to apply for financial aid funding. The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore low-income community college students’ perceptions of financial aid surrounding their decision as to why they chose not to apply for financial aid. Applying Perna’s (2006) conceptual model, recognizes students’ college-related decision making is influenced through the multi layers context areas of family, high school, higher education, and social factors. The study was conducted through the lens of a social constructivism paradigm utilizing an instrumental case study research design. Data collection included the researcher, a pre-survey, semi-structured interviews, field notes, two campus observations, reflective journaling, and electronic and printed document review. The 12 study participants were students enrolled at one medium-size community college located in the southeastern region of Texas. A data analysis spiral assessment was used incorporating a constant comparison method. The trustworthiness of the study involved integrated the study’s framework to focus on credibility, confirmability, dependability, and transferability to ensure the rigor and value of the qualitative study’s findings. Study findings indicated participants’ perceptions of financial aid affected their college related behavior in their decision to not seek out financial aid to cover their tuition. Perceptions of the FAFSA process being a time consuming procedure, influenced participants’ decision to not apply for aid. Participants sought after the guidance of high school counselors but perceived the provided assistance was not beneficial in understanding how to complete the FAFSA. Participants recommended individualized assistance with the FAFSA to increase the likelihood of completion and submission. The study results suggest implications and recommendations for higher education financial aid practices. The study’s implications suggest the time and effort involved in completing the FAFSA was not worth participants’ investment with a risk of being denied aid. Other implications include a need for secondary and postsecondary institutions to culturally embed into their goals and philosophy the importance of financial aid and awareness. In addition, institutions must provide students with personalized assistance in completing the FAFSA to increase application submissions. Recommendations for higher education must ensure students are made aware of the benefits of financial aid in a method that does not confuse their perception of eligibility. Additionally, high schools and colleges must allocate enough resources to prioritize the goal of financial aid awareness to ensure a lack of information is not a barrier to students completing the FAFSA. Recommendations for future research should focus on a qualitative or mixed longitudinal study that identifies factors that may be barriers influencing students’ decisions to not complete a FAFSA. Study results could identify institutional weaknesses to amend policies or procedures as needed.