Date of Award

2014

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Education

First Advisor

Laura W. Perna

Abstract

Students from low-income families are not as likely as their more affluent peers to complete a baccalaureate degree. While other forces - including, but not limited to, prior academic preparation, academic integration, social integration, and engagement on campus - may influence a student's decision to persist or drop out of college, some students simply are not able to afford to pay tuition, fees, and living expenses. Over the past thirty years, the cost of college tuition and fees have increased over 500 percent, while available federal, state, and institutional financial aid programs have failed to grow at a comparable pace. Notwithstanding, there are many students from low-income families who do find ways to persist and complete bachelor's degrees, though little is known about how they are able to navigate the financial obstacles facing them.

This phenomenological study seeks to better understand how students who have persisted beyond their first year at one of three four-year universities (one public, one private not-for-profit, one private for-profit) finance the costs of their college education, how they use financial aid and other resources to pay these costs, and how they perceive financial aid to promote and limit their ability to persist through their educational programs. Findings suggest that students' ability to persist is heavily dependent upon federal, state, and institutional financial aid policies, levels of support and counseling available at the K-12 and postsecondary institutions, and students' individual levels of social and cultural capital. Students in the study relied heavily on need-based grant aid to provide the base of their funding. From there, student loans, employment wages, family support, and budgeting strategies all played important roles for various students.

This study fills an existing gap in the literature, as little is known about the experiences and strategies of students with limited financial resources who are finding ways to meet college costs. Study results provide direction for theory, policy, and practice.

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