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  • Creating Equal Opportunities for Educational Excellence: Providing Support for Students Facing Financial Insecurities

    February 15, 2023 | By Heather Nester

    An illustration of a person trying to climb a ladder towards a graduation cap.

    TAGS: diversity and inclusion, journal, career development, students

    NACE Journal / Winter 2023

    As career services professionals, we know college is an expensive investment. Although many institutions are doing what they can to combat raising tuition, the interest rate on federal student loans for 2022-23 rose to 4.99%, up from about 3.73% in 2021-22, and from 2.75% in 2020-21.1 The overall cost of education is increasing, and often the cost of required course materials is not covered by scholarships. Particularly for students coming from a financially insecure background, the cost of classroom materials frequently leads to higher loan requests now at hiked interest rates.

    It is also critical to consider that the willingness to borrow, and the loan amount needed, vary between racial and ethnic groups and by gender: Various studies found that Black recipients were more likely to have borrowed more than $30,000 in student loans; Latinx and Asian students are more averse to taking out student loans; students of color self-reported higher levels of stress; and women report higher levels of financial stress than men.2

    Finances Impact Curriculum: Looking Inside the Classroom

    The financial burden college students experience also has an impact on retention and their academic experience within the classroom. According to a 2022 survey, 44% of currently enrolled college students with federal and/or private loans reported they have considered dropping out of school due to the financial burdens.3

    Similarly, a 2015 survey found that more than one-third of first-year students and nearly 38% of seniors said their academic performance was affected by economic concerns.4 The weight of these costs significantly impacts, and puts at a disadvantage, first-generation students who might bear the burden alone.

    Considering that students are “worried about their ability to pay tuition bills (67%) and non-educational bills (62%),” that 45% have experienced food insecurity, and that 32% report COVID-19 created additional financial stress for their family, it’s clear that we need to identify ways to financially support students who are struggling to academically engage and explore their career opportunities.5

    Providing Financial Support Through Grant Funding

    At the University of Cincinnati, career-focused courses are required to meet career education student learning outcomes for all academic programs.6 In fall 2019, to help address the financial constraints some students were facing to equally engage in their career-focused courses, I proposed the first iteration of an equity and inclusion grant to our Division of Experience-Based Learning and Career Education Equity and Inclusion Committee—a grant titled “Creating Equal Access to Required Materials for Students Facing Financial Insecurities.” Since the inaugural year, the grant has been submitted yearly and was approved for $1,000 in 2019, $1,500 in 2020, and $1,400 in 2021. The amount of requested funding increased from the first year because of the financial uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on the heels of a decade of global shifts and damaging recessions.7 The goal of the grant was to give all students, regardless of socioeconomic status or identities, equal opportunity to engage in the professional development course and career exploration journey.

    Since fall 2019, the three successfully awarded grants equal $3,900 to fund required course materials in professional development courses at the University of Cincinnati offered through the College of Cooperative Education and Professional Studies. Typically, the funds are used to supply personality and career assessment codes to students as well as subscription support for attendance and polling technology. Both required course materials, which would not be funded through most academic scholarships, enhance students’ ability to engage and reflect on the career course content. The assessments, which is where much of the funding goes, support how the “alignment between your career and your core values produce satisfaction, a sense of happiness and fulfillment. A misalignment can cause everything from minor problems to major disruptions.”8 Thus, the grant is not only providing financial support so all students can fully engage in their academics, but also it helps them explore their long-term career values and goals.

    Method: How Does It Work?

    The structure of the grant allows faculty and adjuncts within the College of Cooperative Education and Professional Studies to request support from the fund on behalf of their students. Faculty introduce the required course materials at the beginning of the semester, and they are encouraged to share the grant as a resource for students who are experiencing significant financial stress or concern about how they can afford it. Students can then privately reach out to the faculty member and request grant assistance. It is important to note for this grant students were not required to submit proof of financial insecurity: This approach is intended to avoid creating additional stress for the student, who may then be less likely to ask for assistance. Also, it acknowledges that students’ financial documents and FAFSA applications do not always tell their whole financial story.

    After the student reaches out, the faculty member can then submit a request for support directly to me as the grant administrator. Once the request is received, the required class material is provided directly to the student. (Note: Grant funds were intentionally not distributed to the student so it would not impact their financial aid awards.)

    Student Reactions: “It Means a Lot…”

    Once the student has used the required material, whether it is a course assessment or supported technology, they receive a request to complete a feedback survey describing the impact of the resource as well as some demographic information. (See Figures 1 through 3.) In particular, Figure 3 illustrates that the grant provided financial support for students with a range of identities.

    The positive responses from supported students, as well as the faculty who use the grant, have led to the ongoing success and multiple-year awards. (See Table 1.) From fall 2019 through fall 2022, 233 undergraduate and graduate students across 18 different career classes have benefited from the grant, which has successfully provided approximately $4,060 in funding for student success. Twenty-three faculty members, across all disciplines within the College of Cooperative Education and Professional Studies, have used the grant to support students. At the end of each academic year, the remaining funds are used to purchase additional Clifton Strengths codes, which are used in most career-focused courses at the University of Cincinnati. Since the following year’s grant application process is not until the middle of the fall semester, this ensures there are support materials for students during the following fall term.

    As discussed earlier, the willingness to borrow and the loan amounts that are needed to afford higher education vary by racial and ethnic groups and by gender. The responses from the students show this equity and inclusion grant has benefited students whose identities frequently experience additional financial stressors.

    The support this grant has provided students is not only financial. An additional benefit is students feel more supported by faculty who are invested in their academic success. As one student shared in the feedback survey, “It feels really nice to have the instructors care about our college costs.”

    Recommendations to Support Equitable Access in Career-Focused Classes & Workshops

    If we want to give students a chance to focus on their professional and personal development, we must find a way to relieve some of the additional stress put on students facing financial insecurities.

    The fact is that career-focused courses and services are not where students invest most of their energy. Consequently, not only do we as career professionals need to build student investment in career-focused offerings, but also we must make them as easily accessible as possible to compete with students’ major-focused coursework. As the average post-secondary student spends between $628 and $1,471 annually for books and supplies, we need to make their career courses and workshops the least of their financial stressors.9 The more supported they feel through career services, the more likely they are to engage in career-focused services, participate in exploratory assignments, and reflect on their long-term professional values and goals. Below are three strategies to provide that support.

    Strategy 1 – Investigate grants to support classroom materials: Research and tap into grant opportunities, including those that may be funded through your institution. Your institution may have centralized grants to support students facing financial insecurities or to support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. A 2019 study found that, among 85 public universities, spending on DEI efforts had increased 27% over the previous five academic years.10

    The Creating Equal Access grant is one example of how university funds can be used to support students in career courses. Of course, grant opportunities are competitive, but the answer is always “no” if you never try. To strengthen applications, consider forming teams to submit proposals that include staff, faculty, and community partners. Be creative about how funding opportunities can help support your students at the department, university, or community level.

    Strategy 2 – Use free technology to supplement engagement and instruction: Some of the funding in the Creating Equal Access grant went toward technology subscription fees being used in career-focused classrooms. For example, some instructors and workshop administrators might use technology with required subscription fees to track attendance or use poll questions to engage participants. Instead, to lower the cost of entry and participation, consider using technology that is free for students. One example, which I have used in my classes, is iClicker. It allows you to track attendance without any financial commitment or strain on students or instructors.

    If your goal is to engage students in active learning or workshops, consider other free technology resources. (See Table 1 for examples.)

    Strategy 3 – Advocate for sustainable career initiatives at the university level: Universities, now more than ever, must find cost-efficient ways to provide career services for students. Financial constraints, increased in response to COVID-19 where 14% average revenue declined across higher education, emphasize the need for sustainability.11 Identify pain points in your career offerings and advocate for additional funding and support—but present your solutions in sustainable ways for the university or college to save money.

    One example is to advocate for career services to integrate directly into the curriculum. Especially at large institutions, it is usually unsustainable for career services professionals to meet with each student individually. Instead of meeting with one student for an hour, the career services professional could spend that hour discussing a career-related topic with 40 students in a classroom.12

    Even without curricular integration, if career services workshops are implemented as mandatory before students graduate there is a sustainable pathway to ensure every student receives at least some career-focused information. The mandatory approach also addresses some issues of inclusion for students of all identities, including distance-learning students who may not be physically present to learn through posted ads or word of mouth about career center offerings.13

    Career services professionals who collaborate with administration and advocate for sustainable practices at the university level can approach the conversation based on two big topics in higher education today: financials and DEI.

    Equal Opportunities Are Critical to the Future

    Creating equal opportunities for students to succeed academically and professionally is critical to the future of career services and higher education. As the fields of career exploration and experiential learning continue to evolve to address the future of work and incoming generations, we must identify critical touchpoints to engage and support students. Financial support, such as the Creating Equal Access grant, is one avenue to lessen the financial stressors placed on students so they can achieve educational excellence in the classroom. As one student said, “It’s hard to settle down and study if you’re thinking about, ‘Am I going to have enough money for rent?’”14


    1 Dickler, J. (2022, July 15). From tuition hikes to higher student loan borrowing costs, inflation is making college even more expensive. CNBC. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from

    2 Baum, S., & Steele, P. (2010). Who borrows most? Bachelor’s degree recipients with high levels of student debt. Trends in Higher Education Series. New York, NY: College Board Advocacy & Policy Center. Retrieved from Goldrick-Rab, S., & Kelchen, R. (2015). Making sense of loan aversion: Evidence from Wisconsin. In B. Hershbein & K. M. Hollenbeck (Eds.), Student loans and the dynamic of debt (pp. 317-378). Kalamazoo, MI: Upjohn Institute. Archuleta, K. L., Dale, A., & Spann, S.M. (2013). College students and financial distress: Exploring debt, financial satisfaction, and financial anxiety. Journal of Financial Counseling and Planning, 24(2), 50-62.

    3 Bryant, J. (2022, July 14). 44% of student borrowers considered dropping out due to financial burden. Retrieved from .

    4 Keith, T. (2016, June 3). Politics in real life: The struggle to pay for college. NPR. Retrieved from

    5 Klebs, S., Fishman, R., Nguyen, S., & Hiler, T. (2021, June 29). One year later: Covid-19s impact on current and future college students. Third Way. Retrieved from; Goldrick-Rab, S., Baker-Smith, C., Coca, V., Looker, E., & Williams, T. (2019, April). College and university basic needs insecurity: A national #RealCollege Survey Report. Hope 4 College. Retrieved from; Business Wire. (2020, November 11). Covid-19 raises anxiety levels for college students by presenting extraordinary health and financial challenges. Business Wire. Retrieved from

    6 Nester, H. (2022). Infusing career into the curriculum and the problem of indecision. In Buford, M. V., Sharp, M. J., Stebleton, M. (Eds.), Mapping the Future of Undergraduate Career Education: Equitable Career Learning, Development, and Preparation in the New World of Work (pp. 200–216). Routledge.

    7 Altig, D., Baker, S., Barrero, J. M., Bloom, N., Bunn, P., Chen, S., Davis, S. J., Leather, J., Meyer, B., Mihaylov, E., Mizen, P., Parker, N., Renault, T., Smietanka, P., & Thwaites, G. (2020). Economic uncertainty before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Public Economics, 191: 104274.

    8 Loffredo, S. (2017, November 13). Do your career and work values align? Inside Higher Ed.

    9 Hanson, M. (2022, July 15). Average cost of college textbooks. Education Data Initiative. Retrieved from

    10 An insight investigation: Accounting for just 0.5% of higher education's budgets, even minimal diversity funding supports their bottom line. Insight Into Diversity. (2019, October 16). Retrieved from

    11 Friga, P.N. (2021, February 5). How much has Covid cost colleges? $183 billion. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

    12 Nester.

    13 Ibid.

    14 Ashford, E. (2019, May 22). Students struggle with college costs. Community College Daily. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from

    Heather NesterHeather Nester is an assistant professor of career education with a focus on multidisciplinary initiatives at the University of Cincinnati. She teaches and coaches students across industries and disciplines to promote self-reflection, discovery, and the pursuit of finding a job worth having as they individually define it. Nester’s research focuses on career exploration and the development of professional identity and has been presented at the local, regional, and international level. Prior to her current role, she was a career coach for students in the range of arts and sciences majors and undecided tracks. Alongside those responsibilities, she ran the peer career coach program that served more than 46,000 students and alumni. She holds an M.A. in human resources from the University of Cincinnati, where she also earned a B.A. in psychology, communication, and organizational leadership.