Older and Parenting Students’ Access to Financial Aid and Benefit Programs: A Case Study of Four States

November 20, 2023

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Title: “We Shouldn’t Have to Choose Between Maintaining and Bettering Our Lives”: An Analysis of Older and Parenting College Students

Authors: Ivy Love, Edward Conroy, Iris Palmer, and Sarah Sattelmeyer

Source: New America

Older students (i.e., students 24 or older), who are also referred to in the literature as adult learners, nontraditional students, or independent students, face significant barriers in their pursuit of higher education, such as balancing the demands of school, work, and parenting. Specifically, older and parenting students often struggle covering the cost of tuition, fees, and other education-related expenses while maintaining their and their children’s basic needs. 

A recent report from New America examines the financial and social service support available to this growing student population, presenting findings from a mixed-methods study of older and parenting students’ access to financial aid and social service or safety net programs in four states: Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, and Texas.

Drawing data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, a subset of benefit programs (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Child Care and Development Block Grant), and focus groups with older and parenting students, New America found adult learners are less likely than traditional-aged students to be able to access and receive state grant funding and benefit programs, regardless of financial need. Additional key findings from the analysis include:

  • Older and parenting students are more likely to receive Pell Grants and other federally funded aid (e.g., federal student loans) than state grant aid despite their financial need.
  • Although the majority of older and parenting students within these states attend two-year colleges, they are less likely to receive state-funded financial aid than older and parenting students attending four-year colleges or universities.  
  • Across all four states’ two and four-year institutions, many older and parenting students with financial need received no grants.
  • Despite demonstrated financial need, older students were unable to access most state aid or public benefit programs due to a lack of awareness of available programs, ambiguous or confusing eligibility requirements, and overall program design.

To better support older students, who comprise over a third of the current student population, New America offered the following policy recommendations:

  • Revise financial aid eligibility to provide greater access to older students: the authors recommend that policymakers adjust grant aid criteria to prioritize need rather than merit, eliminate timeframes associated with high school completion, and reduce enrollment and credit requirements (i.e., expand access to part-time students).
  • Leverage state authority in federal public benefit administration to expand access: For example, states have some discretion related to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) requirements and application processes (e.g., states can consider the average hours students work across semesters/quarters, use “broad-based categorical eligibility,” and expand the number and types of educational programs students may pursue while receiving SNAP benefits). State policymakers can also allocate more financial support and expand eligibility for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, as well as expand child-care subsidies associated with the Child Care and Development Block Grant.
  • Expand awareness of financial aid and public benefit programs: Design promotional and educational campaigns that highlight support services for adult learners. States can also partner with colleges and universities to employ basic needs navigators or coaches to help students access and apply for social services.

To read the full report, click here.

—Alyssa Stefanese Yates

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