Academic journal article College Student Affairs Journal

EVIDENCE-BASED STRATEGIC PLANNING: Using Mixed Methods and the Social Ecological Model to Target Student Financial Stress

Academic journal article College Student Affairs Journal

EVIDENCE-BASED STRATEGIC PLANNING: Using Mixed Methods and the Social Ecological Model to Target Student Financial Stress

Article excerpt

I was encouraged by an outside source to come here because I had a great chance of receiving a decent financial package since I was a first-generation low-income student. Unfortunately, I have found myself caught up in constant worry since I started my college years at this institution.... Up to this day I wake up worrying about the large amount of money that I will have in debt after gradua- tion.... I am currently trying my best to grad- uate a semester early... because I feel that it has caused great emotional distress to me and to my parents who have no idea in what ways to help. (Focus group participant #SC-8)

College is a stressful time. Over one fourth of U.S. college students who took the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II (ACHA-NCHA) reported that stress had a negative impact on their academic performance (American Col- lege Health Association [ACHA], 2008). Stress can have serious negative consequences for students, affecting not only academics and retention (Joo, Durband, & Grable, 2008; Ross, Cleland, & Macleod, 2006), but also self-esteem, health habits and health status (Cooke, Barkham, Audin, Bradley, & Davy, 2004; Hudd et al., 2000). Identifying specific sources of distress may be an important way to help intervene before students' performance and well-being are impacted. Therefore, the focus of the current paper is to present student affairs professionals and others with an evi- dence-based strategic planning process that targets particular sources of stress and applies a holistic perspective in its strategies.

The process began with formation of a task force charged with development of a plan to reduce student stress at one private, medium- sized, faith-based institution. From the start, the task force recognized the need to clarify what students meant by "stress" in the NCHA- ACHA by collecting additional data. As described in the results section, financial stress stood out early as the type of stress prompting highest levels of distress among students in the focus groups, thus the task force addressed stu- dent financial stress in its first strategic plan.

Financial stressors are complex and grow- ing sources of stress for college students (Phin- ney & Haas, 2003). In the past, poor student outcomes like dropout rates were seen primar- ily from a perspective of emotional stress, cop- ing and interrelationships. Only recently have researchers examined financial stress in a sys- tematic way (Joo et al., 2008). A few studies have looked at multiple sources, consequences and remedies for student financial stress and have provided insights needed to address the issues.

Several specific sources of financial prob- lems, or stressors, for students identified in the literature include lack of financial aid and financial aid information (Zarate & Fabienke 2007), high tuition costs, low levels of finan- cial literacy, poor discretionary spending behaviors, and high levels of debt (Joo et al., 2008; Lyons, 2004; Palmer, Bliss, Goetz, & Moorman, 2010). These problems can also be documented in terms of dollars and cents. For example, the average debt levels for graduat- ing seniors with loans rose almost 82% from 1996 to 2008 nationwide ("Student Debt," 2012), to $23,200 in student loan debt (Reed & Cheng, 2009). In 2008, the year our study began, the average student loan debt for gradu- ating seniors with loans at our university, was $25,056 (University of San Diego Institutional Research and Planning Stat Book, 2008). In addition to these tangible financial concerns, some studies found students' perceptions or worries about their own levels of debt, rather than level of debt per se, as a key factor affect- ing student academics and health (Cooke et al., 2004; Ross et al., 2006; St. John, 1998). Others described positive and negative mediating fac- tors such as the pivotal role of teachers and counselors in assisting students obtain finan- cial aid (Zarate & Fabienke, 2007) and the sometimes negative impact of financial aid office policies and practices (Zisken, Fischer, Torres, Pellicciotti, & Player-Sanders, 2009). …

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