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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Cost of Compliance: First-Generation College Students’ Experiences Navigating the Financial Aid Process

  • Author(s): Do, Joanne
  • Advisor(s): Eagan, Mark K
  • et al.

Accessing financial aid is a complex process. Navigating this process can be difficult for all students, but obstacles to financial aid most negatively affect students whom have the least familiarity with institutional culture and whom most rely on financial aid to afford their education. Using data collected from interviews, observations, and documents, this study seeks to answer the following questions: 1) how do first-generation college students at a broad-access 4-year university describe their experiences while accessing financial aid services at their institution and 2) how do these first-generation college students navigate the financial aid process. This study illuminates students’ personal experiences while dealing with a process that was not only complicated, but also one that was perceived to be dominated by policing efforts. Although these efforts are intended to deter individuals from abusing the financial aid system, they resulted in what participants described as a climate of fear and anxiety. In order to navigate a financial aid process that they felt was not created with them in mind, students utilized social capital to access additional resources outside of the financial aid office and relied on internal motivators through the forms of community wealth brought with them from their families and home communities. The implications for this study provide insight into improving institutional policies that create barriers to accessing financial aid so that financial aid can serve its intended purpose: to increase equity and access to higher education.

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