The At-Risk Students' Guide to Finishing an Online Degree, Part 2

Posted on April 17, 2013

In the first part, we laid out some of the risks facing online students with heavy time demands from work and family. This time, we're looking at a related group of at-risk online learners: those with financial constraints. Although working students may be short on time, their paycheck can help them avoid some of the pitfalls that face students struggling with the economics of education.

While college attendance has gone for both affluent college students and their poorer counterparts, the gap between them in completing bachelor's degrees has increased from a 31% difference in 1972 to 45% in 2012. In the bottom 25% of incomes for the U.S., fewer than a third even enroll in a four-year college, and less than half of those go on to graduate.

However, the good news is that low-income students are high achievers at a rate much higher than was previously thought. The Brookings Institution recently published findings from data on millions of American students that the rate of high-achieving, high-income students only outnumber high-achieving, low-income students two to one (a rate 8-15 times higher than some college admissions offices had estimated).

So the data proves what low-income students hopefully already knew: they can achieve great heights in their education. It just takes the right approach.

Risk 1: You don't have adequate access to necessary equipment.

It's easy for those with ample access to high-speed Internet — including college professors and administrators — to forget that not all Americans enjoy the same luxury. According to the Economics and Statistics Administration, an estimated 100 million citizens cannot access the Internet from home. And the lower the income level for the household, the lower the rate of both computer and broadband use. While a quarter of households at incomes $25,000-$50,000 have no computer, that number jumps to almost half of households (46%) with incomes below $25,000.

How you can overcome it:

  • Use it where you find it: The most common places students without home Internet access get online are at their jobs, their school, public libraries, or a friend's house. Many college campuses offer free wifi for students, so if you have your own Internet-equipped device you don't have to be tied to a computer lab. Sites like Wi-Fi-Freespot are good resources for finding businesses like Panera Bread and McDonald's that offer free wifi to customers.
  • Take advantage of discounts: Students in low-income households may not be aware that they qualify for discounts on things like broadband Internet service. For example, Comcast provides a plan called Internet Essentials where families with children who are eligible for reduced-price lunches at school can receive Internet at home for $9.95 a month. (But just 100,000 of the 2.3 million eligible families have signed up). There's even a new startup called FreedomPop that allows users in certain areas to get broadband access for free (with data limits), or for as little as $10 a month.

Tools to use:

  • Tablets: Many people from poorer households site the high initial cost of buying a computer as a barrier to getting broadband Internet access at home. One way to cut the cost is to purchase a comparatively inexpensive netbook or tablet that would allow you to access Blackboard, watch lectures, take notes, and keep track of assignments. Google's Nexus 7 sports a fast processor, vivid 7-inch display, and easy connectivity with other Google products like Gmail and Drive. At $200, it costs about 10% of a Macbook Pro.
  • Netbooks: You may find you need the full range of computing features a laptop provides, like a built-in keyboard. If that is the case, you still have some cheap options. On the low end of the computing power and price scale, there are Chromebooks starting at $199. Netbooks represent a nice middle ground, giving you solid computing ability for $300-$400. Keep an eye on sites like or Tiger Direct for deals on refurbished laptops, or check the sales at local electronics stores like Fry's.

Risk 2: Your family doesn't support you.

In about 80% of cases, being a low-income college student means also being a first-generation college student, and the risks of this group are well-documented. As of late 2010, the rate that low-income first-gens left college in six years without a degree was an astounding 89%. Financial troubles are frequently part of the problem, but for many, they drop out or fail out because they simply weren't prepared, and because they did not get the moral support of their friends and family.

Parents who did not go to college themselves can be misunderstanding and even critical when their children choose to pursue a degree. Even those who are supportive usually cannot offer any advice on selecting a major, managing time and finances, or other skills critical to success in college. Moreover, according to the American Psychological Association, students who self-identify as low-income often report feelings of not belonging in school and an intention of dropping out before graduation.

How you can overcome it:

  • Lean on others: Even more than other students, first-gen and low-income students need to seek out their online academic advisors or go see them in person on campus. A good counselor will be able to answer your questions about counseling services, special programs for first-gen students, mentor and tutoring services, and financial aid.
    As we said in Part 1, making connections with other online learners is crucial to staying motivated. It will also have the added benefit of giving you a sense of belonging that may be lacking as a first-gen student. So taking part in class discussions and attending on-campus events to meet your fellow learners is highly advisable.
  • Take the wheel: Joel P. Spiess, academic advisor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said he also emphasizes the importance of each student being his or her own advocate. "I often remind students that they are in the driver's seat when it comes to their education," he said, "and they are the ones to decided when to hit the gas, when to slow things down, and when to turn and change directions. For so many students, this is a big adjustment from high school, where much of their education was dictated for them."
  • Brush up on your study skills: There's no shame in admitting you need help preparing to be a college student; earning your degree online will be every bit as difficult, if not more so, than earning it on a traditional campus. Many first-gen students begin their classes without understanding how to maximize their study time or how to interact online with professors. Somewhere on their websites, most schools include a section of study tips, often tying it into student orientation. Be sure to read them over thoroughly.

Tools to use:

  • Mentors: While college counselors are a good place to start, they're often overloaded with a high volume of students. So before even settling on an online college, you might want to inquire as to whether it offers a mentoring program of some kind, like the student mentoring program at Western Governors University. At WGU, the student mentor works with the enrollment counselor to develop a "personalized degree plan." Such a system is an excellent way to set yourself up to complete a degree.
  • Online resources: Some schools offer special programs for first-generation students to help them get acclimated and succeed, so be sure to ask your advisor about them. But even if yours doesn't, you're already online — use the Web. Online resources from other schools' programs like MIT's First Generation Project or .orgs like First in the Family offer some helpful resources. The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies also features useful info for adult and distance learners on its site, as does the Illinois Online Network.

Risk 3: The stress of dealing with finances causes your grades to drop and/or your graduation to be postponed.

According to a 2012 survey by Inceptia, a branch of the National Student Loan Program, the stress of finances has negatively affected one-third of college students. An additional 20% said finances had created a need to reduce their course load to deal with the problem. The researchers were convinced of a direct link between financial stress — whether the worry over college borrowing, the need to repay loans, or the pressure to find a job after graduation — and academic performance.

Rather than drop out, some students even take the reverse route. Spiess said has had numerous students tell him they want to stay in school as long as possible so they can delay the start of payments on their loans. He said this "avoidance mentality" is common among students who don't understand the nature of financial aid, particularly loans.

How you can overcome it:

  • Get a scholarship or loan: Hopefully you weren't under the false impression that online students can't get scholarships. With all the grants and scholarships at individual universities, plus private scholarships, there is money to be had. There are even scholarships strictly for first-generation students, like the Mercedes-Benz "Drive Your Future" scholarship and the Coca-Cola Foundation First Generation Scholarships. The low-interest federal Stafford loan is also available to online students.
  • Get a job: We don't mean to imply you don't already have a job, or that you're sitting around with all kinds of free time. This is mainly for students who want to make a little extra cash when they have time, close to where they live, doing something they already know how to do or that can also be done while studying. Thanks to the Web, it's never been easier to find these jobs.
    Although only currently available in nine cities, Taskrabbit is a fast-growing network of people that need a task like furniture assembly or pet sitting completed, and the "task rabbits" who sign up for work. Fiverr works in a similar manner and includes hundreds of small jobs that don't even require moving away from your computer. If you want to sell your services as a tutor, Thumbtack is another good option.

Tools to use:

  • Financial aid counselor: Spiess says this is the appointment he encourages his students to make "first and foremost," because in a school as big as UWM, it's not possible for an academic advisor to stay up-to-date on all the intricacies of financial assistance. A financial aid advisor can tell you what scholarships are available to you as an online student and guide you through the process of dealing with your loans after you graduate, even if such exit counseling is not required by law. Spiess said the information they give you may seem overwhelming or irrelevant to you now, but he urges students to power through all the same.
  • Getting your finances under control now is the smartest way to give yourself the confidence that you can live within your means once you graduate. A good, free financial planning program like Mint can help you track where you're spending too much, set goals for saving, and receive mobile alerts when you're in danger of going over budget.

It's not just online students who are feeling the sting of economic troubles; the student debt didn't get to $1 trillion on distance learners alone. Across the country, college students and graduates of all kinds are dealing with high unemployment and underemployment. If there is a silver lining to facing these financial concerns, it's that you won't be as unprepared for life in this economy as many of your fellow graduates from brick-and-mortar campuses will be. Consider this time your financial training period, just another lesson to be learned.