Money Matters

How Financial Aid Affects Nontraditional Students in Community Colleges

| Victoria Choitz, Rebecca Widom

In recent years, interest has grown in the role community colleges can play in helping low-wage workers advance out of poverty and toward economic self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, high attrition rates among these nontraditional students limit community colleges’ success in this arena. MDRC has identified three strategies that might enable colleges to serve working adults more effectively: enhanced student services; curricular and instructional innovation; and, the focus of this paper, supplemental student financial aid. Examining federal, state, and institutional programs, the paper presents a framework for understanding challenges to securing comprehensive financial assistance for low-income working students. The paper identifies promising approaches for supplementing student financial aid based on a range of programs implemented in the past and planned for the future. It also raises issues that bear consideration in designing a program that would be both effective in ways that can be measured through random assignment studies and replicable.