Carla Anderson, South Dakota State University
College students are faced with difficult and sometimes complex personal financial decisions, often without having the resources or training available to help them. Financial decisions are a major source of anxiety, particularly for students who are already coping with depression, which many are. College student well-being and students disclosing mental health issues is not a new concern; however, as academic advisors, we must acknowledge that financial stress adds to the various other stressors that college students experience (Robb, 2017). Students may turn to their academic advisor to discuss their personal finances and the unmanaged stress it is causing them. It is important to note that, according to Arnett (2000), the habits students form in early adulthood may become lifetime personality traits and become difficult to break. Thus, if advisors engage students in conversations regarding their financial decision-making, perhaps new and healthy financial habits may be formed and retained.
Understanding Student Financial Stress
When a student feels secure in their personal finances, focusing on schoolwork becomes easier to manage. College students that exhibit positive financial behaviors perform better academically (Shim et al., 2009). Financial stress is impacting student retention. Financial strain is one of the highest factors that impacts student persistence, and studies show that finances are among the highest stressors students face during college (Robb, 2017). The U.S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission (2015) found that nearly 60 percent of students worry about having enough money to pay for school, while half are concerned about paying their monthly expenses.
The COVID-19 pandemic added to the financial difficulties that college students had already been facing. According to Liu et al. (2022), the economic impact of the pandemic may have resulted in increases of depression and anxiety in young adults. This is especially true for students of color. In a study of depression and anxiety in young adults related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kujawa et al. (2020) found that survey participants who identified as Black or African American reported a greater severity of pandemic stress.
There are many studies that link financial stress to student well-being. One such study published pre-pandemic, stated that 30% of their sampled student population had to reduce the number of credit hours they were taking due to financial concerns (Robb, 2017). That nearly ensures that these issues will surface in the academic advisor’s office. Students seek out their advisor in times of crises because they have a relationship with them and see them as their first resource on campus. The role of the academic advisor is essential to students who are dealing with academic and personal stress. While some financial issues are out of the scope of the advisor’s expertise, advisors may listen and guide the student with the focus on well-being. Advisors may want to be prepared to refer students to campus and community resources for housing and utility assistance, food assistance, part-time jobs, etc., and facilitate discussions that encourage brainstorming a financial solution that is unique to their personal situation.
A financial aid professional, who wished to remain anonymous, acknowledged that students are in a tremendous amount of stress and are in a state of high anxiety when they call the financial aid office seeking assistance. Students tell her they are working more hours yet have nothing left for school expenses. They are experiencing high stress, and she sees the impact on students who make important financial decisions with limited or no knowledge of personal finances. She stated that academic advisors maintain great partnerships to the financial aid professionals by referring students to the financial aid office and by staying aware of issues that may impact satisfactory academic progress, particularly if students discuss the desire to drop classes.
How Academic Advisors May Help
Student finances should be the concern of academic advisors because it is a primary concern of students. Every student, from those living in debt to those living on trust funds, must make daily financial decisions and yet may not be equipped the knowledge to make these decisions (Pellegrin & Zabokrtsky, 2009). Young adulthood is an important developmental time to form positive financial habits. Shim et al. (2009) found that between the ages of 18–25 were prime years for financial education. The traditionally aged college student is eager to learn and implement positive financial behaviors and the academic advisor can be an excellent resource.
Academic advisors do not need to be well-versed in personal finance knowledge or be an expert with money in their own lives. Advisors need to utilize the skills of helping the student feel heard and validated, skills they already have. According to Firestein & Fink (2020), advisors may encourage students to be comfortable talking about their stressors and accomplish this by ensuring their meeting and office space promotes open communication. Many individuals are raised to be scared or ashamed to talk about money. When students feel comfortable discussing their insecurities in their advisor’s office, advisors may guide students toward their own solutions and empower them to feel in control (Firestein & Fink, 2020). By listening with unconditional support to students who wish to discuss financial strains, the advisor may encourage the student and guide them toward brainstorming solutions in a positive way.
Harrington and Smith (2016) also found that students were interested in financial topics that had an immediate impact on them. Therefore, a student in an academic advisor’s office experiencing financial concerns is in the perfect position to learn positive financial habits. Harrington and Smith (2016) also found that the time commitment to learning personal finances impacted the student’s interest in learning; students did not want to invest too much of their time in financial education. One could conclude that the brief academic advising meeting could have a strong impact on the student’s financial behaviors. Below are some quick ways the advising meeting can help students in financial distress:
• Acknowledge that students likely do not know the right questions to ask or where to begin, particularly first-year students or students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The academic advisor can guide the student through identifying the issue and processing their feelings (Tippetts et al., 2020).
• Maintain a working knowledge of basic financial aid information like deadlines and Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) and be willing to refer students to the financial aid office swiftly (Pellegrin & Zabokrtsky, 2009).
• Be cognizant that first-year students have the highest levels of financial stress, therefore advisors may wish to incorporate financial education into first-year seminars or ask about the students’ financial stressors during first-year advising meetings with a focus of reducing anxiety around money (Britt et al., 2015).
• Discuss with students things they can do to feel empowered and in control of personal finances, such as budgeting apps or worksheets (Perry & Morris, 2005).
• Encourage students to enroll in a personal finance courses or workshops offered on campus.
• Guide students toward campus and community resources such as the financial aid office, food banks, housing and utility assistance, and ride-share programs.
• Prepare a cheat sheet of basic student financial information, including resources, that can be quickly and easily accessed (Pellegrin & Zabokrtsky, 2009).
Meeting with students in financial distress, or any unmanaged stress, takes its toll on the advisor. The suggestions above from the literature can be a huge help to advisors and assist with reducing student stress and ultimately compassion fatigue in these situations. Societal issues, such as financial stress, will impact the mental health of students; therefore, if advisors access the resources they already have, they can overcome any worry of not knowing how to answer students’ personal finance questions. The brief academic advising meeting is an incredibly useful moment to incorporate financial management and budgeting tips to encourage positive behaviors and ultimately reduce the stress students experience. Academic advisors can utilize their communication skills and strengths, along with their campus connections, to empower students to make confident and resilient financial decisions to reduce anxiety around money issues and improve academic persistence and success.
Arnett, J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469–480. https://doi.org/101037//0003-066X.55.5.469
Britt, S. L., Canale, A., Fernatt, F., Stutz, K., & Tibbetts, R. (2015). Financial stress and financial counseling: Helping college students. Journal of Financial Counseling and Planning, 26(2), 172–186. https://doi.org/10.1891/1052-3073.26.2.172
Firestein, C., & Fink, N. (2020, September). Supporting students who struggle with mental wellness. Academic Advising Today, 43(3). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Supporting-Students-Who-Struggle-with-Mental-Wellness.aspx
Harrington, C., & Smith, W. (2016). College student interest in personal finance education. Financial Services Review, 25, 351–372. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2782788
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Robb, C. A. (2017). College student financial stress: Are the kids alright? Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 38(4), 514–527. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10834-017-9527-6
Shim, S., Xiao, J., Barber, B., & Lyons, A. (2009). Pathways to life success: A conceptual model of financial well-being for young adults. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 30(6), 708–723. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2009.02.003
Tippetts, M. M., Brandley, A. T., Metro, J., King, M., Ogren, C., & Zick, C. D. (2022). Promoting persistence: The role of academic advisors. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 24(2), 526–547. https://doi.org/10.1177/1521025120924804
The U.S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission. (2015). Opportunities to improve the financial capability and financial well-being of postsecondary students. Department of Treasury. https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/231/Opportunities-to-Improve-the-Financial-Capability-and-Financial-Wellbeing-of-Postsecondary-Students.pdf