It feels like a lifetime ago when colleges across the country took swift action to close their campuses for the remainder of the spring semester – derailing the academic goals of thousands of vulnerable students. Five months later, colleges are grappling with a related quagmire: whether or not to open their campuses this fall. The current predicament will fundamentally shift higher education as we know it and offers a compelling opportunity for credit unions to engage students.
The lives of vulnerable students – current and future – are overwhelmingly complex. Our pre- pandemic research shows that students are juggling multiple jobs, family life, and caretaking. And now, for many would-be first-time students, the decision whether or not to attend college is under careful review.
Imagine yourself as a first-time college student planning to attend school in the fall. You’re a credit union member of modest means. As you’re preparing for your first semester, you receive a letter from the college’s president stating a modified schedule with a combination of in-person and remote learning platforms. Tuition remains the same, but your college experience will be nowhere near what you expected. All the while, your family’s household income has dropped (more than half of families’ finances have been affected by the pandemic) and Target’s hiring spree at $15 per hour starting wage is becoming increasingly attractive.
Many low- to moderate-income households are staring this scenario in the face and colleges of all shapes and sizes are seeing the impact of this dilemma. Pre-pandemic college enrollment numbers have been consistently slipping. As compared to last year, spring enrollment across the country has declined by over 83,000.
The Covid-19 pandemic has renewed questions about the value of a college education; a typical college graduate earns at least $1 million more than a high school graduate during their lifetime, highlighting that the cost of a college education is still often worth it. Higher education has long been, and continues to be, a symbol of economic mobility and possibility for people in America. Often seen as an equalizer, obtaining a college degree is a doorway for people of all backgrounds to increase their resilience and pursue long-term opportunities. Especially for those college-bound individuals who struggled financially growing up, degree achievement increases the likelihood of their financial health. But the realities of today’s environment are putting additional strain on would-be college students.
What should credit unions do?
It is incumbent on all of us – private sector, nonprofits, and governments – to ensure that our higher education system delivers personal and professional opportunities for those individuals able to achieve accreditation. At first blush, it may not seem obvious, but credit unions are in a unique position to help ensure future students are in a better position to attend and complete school.
Credit unions should have a student engagement strategy regardless of footprint. Helping future students complete their FAFSA, build a budget, and understand the ‘true cost’ of attending school would be highly valued. This engagement strategy would provide more opportunities for the credit union to offer solutions and fill the student’s financial gaps of non-academic costs.
Now, again imagine that you are a first-time college student debating whether or not to attend school. Many of your friends are dropping their pursuit of higher education and your household could really use additional income. Your credit union steps up as your biggest advocate, pushing you to achieve your educational goal. The credit union guides your completion of FAFSA, provides you with bridge financing as needed, and sends nudge messages throughout the process to ensure your comfort leading into your first year of school. During your college years, the credit union proactively checks in on your academic progress, answers your financial questions, and helps guide your professional journey.
The credit union has gained a lifelong member.
It’s impossible to predict the future of higher education in the wake of this pandemic, but credit unions can step up now to ensure that members have the information and tools they need to make the most of their opportunities to pursue higher education. Would-be college students grappling with considerations like these are facing a last-mile challenge to start this important phase of their journey. And many need your credit union in their corner.