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Managing “This Unstable Financial Life of Mine:” Capabilities, Barriers, and Stress in Student Financial Stories

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

Researchers have demonstrated that personal financial disadvantage and economic stress impede the academic attainment of students in higher education (Walpole, 2007). Specifically, financial hardships such as low family income, material deprivation, or serious debt may hinder persistence to degree attainment. While scholars have demonstrated that economically disadvantaged (ED) students struggle more than their peers in persisting to a degree, they have not determined the nature of this socio-economic condition and the ways in which this condition may affect persistence and students’ collegiate experiences.

This qualitative investigation employs an uncommon approach in explaining a frequently researched topic. It relies on a narrative structure that examines, phenomenologically, how the financial stories of students in higher education interact with their stories of collegiate persistence and experiences at a regional comprehensive university and community college in southern California. Data in this investigation comprise multiple semistructured and email interviews of 18 degree-seeking undergraduate students. Creation of three composite narratives serve as the primary analysis, with additional analysis including coding and categorization guided by capabilities and stress theories.

ED students experience personal and family financial struggle before and during college. These students are challenged with both broad and specific affordability issues in a negative environment involving unexpected financial burdens and structural impediments. ED students value the financial security of higher education and are motivated by both struggles and successes. The students demonstrate the capabilities to meet financial needs and believe in individual ability as the determinant to persistence in college yet describe how external factors such as financial aid and employment create barriers to college completion and experiences. ED student financial situations also create stress which affects student experience. Implications for scholars, policy makers, and practitioners are discussed.

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