The “cognitive burden of day-to-day rationing” leaves lower-income college students with less room for deep thought and social engagement, Eric Johnson writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In calling attention to “poverty as a kind of mental tax,” Johnson—who works for the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill—urges higher education stakeholders to “pay closer attention to immediate financial stress as an academic handicap—and a fixable problem.”
The cognitive strain of financial stress
A 2013 study in the journal Science explored the mental implications of the difficult tradeoffs and uncertainty that come with poverty. The economics and psychology researchers found that “even when not actually making a financial decision, these preoccupations can be present and distracting.”
Johnson says the best-selling memoir Educated also drives home this point. In sharing her journey from a fundamentalist compound in Idaho to a doctorate from Harvard, Educated author Tara Westover describes “the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.” Unable to pay her bills, Westover saw her academic engagement suffer; however, after securing financial aid “my professors came into focus… it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens,” Westover writes.
Aid programs should better address immediate financial needs, author says
Effective financial aid, therefore, goes beyond covering just “the bare minimum college costs,” Johnson asserts; rather, it should buy enough mental space to “give low-income students the freedom to be students.”
To achieve this, Johnson calls for cost-of-attendance calculations that reflect “more than a bare-bones budget of direct expenses” and for giving financial aid offices more flexibility to deploy state and federal funding against “the minor crises that can derail even the best-prepared students.”
He also notes the importance of supporting students who need budgeting advice and aid adjustments, as well as the value of creating—and increasing students’ awareness of—emergency grant programs.
GSP Necessity Fund aims to alleviate stress of emergency needs
The Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP) provides academic, co-curricular, professional development, and other support to help scholarship recipients acclimate and flourish. Separate from the financial aid award package that enables students to attend Georgetown University, GSP maintains a Necessity Fund, which provides additional grants to helps scholarship students confronting unanticipated expenses associated with personal, family, or other emergencies. Learn more about GSP Necessity Grants.