College Aid Offices Need to Battle Financial Trauma

College Aid Offices Need to Battle Financial Trauma

In its simplest form, trauma is an individual's emotional response to a distressing situation. Traumatic events often occur suddenly and feel beyond a person's control. These experiences leave people with a persistent feeling that catastrophe could strike at any moment.

Trauma comes in many forms and can impact disparate areas of our lives. Every generation has its own unique challenges and types of trauma it faces. Today's college students are no exception and face a unique type of trauma—financial trauma—the likes of which have not been seen since my grandmother's generation, who grew up in the Great Depression.

Cue memories of the Great Recession: in 2008, 8.6 million jobs were lost in two years, and more than 2.3 million homes foreclosed on. These events are prime examples of the financial trauma that today's high school students faced in their formative years. As stand-alone events, they may fall into the definition of acute trauma per Psychology Today: "intense distress in the immediate aftermath of a one-time event."

Fast-forward to March of 2020, COVID-19 is rearing its head. 114 million people lost jobs in 2020 alone, which led to $3.7 trillion in lost labor income. This impact was not universally felt. It disproportionately impacted low- and moderate-income families and people of color.

As if the financial trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was not enough, college students are facing new challenges with recent increases in inflation, interest rates, and layoffs. The rising cost of living, especially in areas with high housing and rental costs, leaves many students struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, higher interest rates make it more difficult for students to access affordable loans, and the threat of layoffs is causing anxiety and uncertainty for those already struggling financially. These additional stressors are compounding the already complex financial trauma many college students have experienced, which highlights the urgent need for institutions to prioritize the mental health needs of their students alongside their financial needs.

Identifying and Addressing Financial Trauma

Financial trauma for families with college-going children moves past acute trauma into complex trauma when an individual experiences multiple or prolonged traumatic events from which there is no escape. This dramatically undermines an individual's sense of safety. The result is often a hypervigilant weariness of the world. Long-term impacts include anxiety, anger, sadness, and survivor's guilt. These are emotional states that aid professionals come face to face with on a daily basis.

Begin to understand how and when financial trauma can occur. Recognizing what may be a trigger can offer an opportunity to reduce the impact on your students. There are points in the financial aid process that can re-traumatize students. How many times must we ask a student to prove they are poor, unemployed, or receiving public assistance? Look at the policies and procedures you have and ask yourself if it is necessary or if it could be re-traumatizing for students and their families.

Financial aid offices have not traditionally been trained to address students' mental health needs. The traditional employee profile leans toward process, compliance, and accuracy. Moreover, aid offices are overburdened with ever-changing guidance and new regulations. Add to that a lack of investment in the technology they use—and the staff running it—and the problems get worse. Given the complex nature of the financial trauma that college students have faced, maybe we should start to provide aid offices with the tools they need to support students in need.

Colleges must build relationships between aid offices and financially traumatized students early to ensure trust and transparency. This can help reduce the risk of re-traumatizing students as they begin their financial aid journey. Encouraging aid officers to go out into the local community of feeder high schools and conduct financial aid presentations for high school students can help build those connections. Perhaps, staff should consider having aid officers create an introduction video that can be placed on a school's website and shared on social media. Aid officers have a powerful connection to their purpose and were often recipients and beneficiaries of the financial aid system. They want to help students but often lack resources to do so.

The financial aid process can be overwhelming for any student, particularly those who have faced financial trauma. This is why the aid office needs to be a judgment-free zone for students and a safe place to share challenges. Training staff on how and when to appropriately acknowledge the emotions and experiences of a student and their family is essential to keep the conversation going. If students feel judged or blamed, they are being re-victimized, with the most common outcome being disengagement with the one office that has the most significant opportunity to help.

Investing in Student Well-being

The student experience is not just about how our staff engages with students and families. The student experience is rooted in institutional policies and procedures. Consider bringing together a team of aid professionals to look at your policies and procedures around institutional aid applications, verification and conflicting information, and appeals and really dig into them. Consider these questions:

  • Why do we do this?
  • Is it necessary to continue doing this?
  • Is this causing unnecessary re-traumatization of our students?

The friction in the college funding journey is the number one barrier to college enrollment and completion. It is a barrier that stops students from improving their lives and generationally improving their financial opportunities. Students face immense challenges with mental health and trauma; we can ensure that the college process doesn't add to those experiences by reducing the friction points in the funding journey.

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