Exterior photo of VCU campus near Student Commons, flowered tree in foreground.
'VCU is a learning and research organization that is committed to addressing structural inequities to ensure student success,' said Tomikia P. LeGrande, Ed.D., vice president for strategy, enrollment management and student success at VCU.

Addressing college affordability and the financial needs of students

VCU and other public universities examine innovative approaches to financial aid, structural inequities and removing barriers to higher education.

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Enhancing financial assistance programs and confronting racial and socioeconomic inequities are critical to addressing college affordability and student debt challenges, according to research by Virginia Commonwealth University, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Powered by Publics initiative and TIAA Institute.

“We are excited and proud for VCU to be among eight other Powered by Publics institutions implementing innovative approaches to provide greater opportunity for all students to achieve their educational goals, no matter their economic status,” said Tomikia P. LeGrande, Ed.D., vice president for strategy, enrollment management and student success at VCU. “This new research highlights VCU as a leader in best practices in addressing financial barriers for students. Colleges and universities must develop a more holistic approach to addressing student financial need, as college affordability is bigger than the amount of money awarded to students through financial aid. Institutions must seek new ways to meet the diverse financial need of today’s students and to ensure that programs and policies are evolving alongside evolving student populations.”

The new research investigates best practices and possible long-term reforms to current financial aid approaches by examining leading-edge approaches underway at nine Powered by Publics institutions. Approaches include one-stop centers for emergency aid and services to meet students’ financial and nonacademic needs; completion and retention grants; institutional debt forgiveness; open educational resources; and industry partnerships that help students work, learn and earn.

“The past year has magnified the scale of student financial need and underscored the urgency of addressing it through reform and the development of targeted, multifaceted innovations,” said Alcione Frederick, assistant director in APLU’s Center for Public University Transformation, who led the research. “We know cost barriers disproportionately impact Black, Latinx, first-generation and low-income students and that the pandemic has exacerbated these long-standing inequities. We’re excited to release this research today to showcase effective approaches institutions can take to address financial barriers that contribute to these inequities.”

“Innovative financial aid policies and practices are making a tremendous difference in closing the higher education affordability gap,” added Anne Ollen, managing director of the TIAA Institute. “This initiative helped to shine a light on the essential work of college and university financial aid and student affairs professionals, among others who focus on helping students manage the costs of getting to and through degree completion. We need to increase awareness and keep the momentum going.”

The Powered by Publics initiative has convened nearly 125 higher education institutions within 16 “transformation clusters” – reaching 3 million undergraduate students, including 1 million Pell Grant recipients. These clusters are advancing collaborative work in thematic areas of affordability, holistic student support and teaching and learning. Each is focused on solving different pieces of the student success puzzle as public universities work together to tear down long-standing barriers, advance equity, eliminate the achievement gap, prepare students to thrive in the 21st-century workforce and collectively increase the number of degrees they award.

VCU has made affordability and improved financial counseling and support an institutional priority, LeGrande said.

“Since 2011 VCU has made strategic investments in institutional need-based financial aid, thoughtful decisions to hold tuition at 0% increase for the past three years, offering more open and affordable course content and implemented a new Student Financial Management Center in March 2020,” she said. “VCU is a learning and research organization that is committed to addressing structural inequities to ensure student success.”

The new research follows previous briefs examining the college affordability landscape and equitable financial innovations, as well as an examination of emergency aid disbursement made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Cleveland State University, Rutgers University-Newark, University of Cincinnati, University of Louisville, University of North Texas, the University of Texas at San Antonio, Wayne State University and West Virginia University are the other institutions that participated in the study.