Faculty can make adjustments to help students facing financial challenges


For one Pitt–Bradford faculty member, helping students who face money difficulties at the University is personal.

As a young adult, he thought college was out of reach, given his family’s income level. “I didn’t know about financial assistance at all,” he said.

Then, at 21, while stocking shelves overnight at a grocery store, he heard a colleague suggest that loans could pay for tuition and room and board.

“I said I didn’t have any credit — I can’t apply for a loan. She told me they were guaranteed.”

Years later, out of college and a faculty member himself, he has been able to offer advice to Bradford students in similar straits. “Watch for those students looking sleepy all the time,” he suggested. Ask questions like: Are you working several jobs to pay for this? Do you know you can apply for financial aid?

This lesson was just part of the Faculty and Staff Development Program course, “Understanding Our Students: Financial Challenges & Instructional Choices,” held Oct. 23 by the Center for Diversity in the Curriculum at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.

Waverly DuckIt was presented by Waverly Duck, sociology faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, and Erika Gold Kestenberg, diversity, inclusion, equity and justice consultant in the School of Education’s Center for Urban Education.

Kestenberg, a Pitt alumna, also recalled living off a large pizza from the O for days in a row, or counting yogurt with fruit as a special treat — and a meal. “I would just study a lot, but it was just because I couldn’t afford to do the things that they were doing,” she said of her classmates.

Duck, pointing to Pitt’s yearly cost of $30,000 to 40,000 for tuition, room and board, books and supplies (depending on whether a student pays in-state or out-of-state rates), reported that students with greater financial insecurity had a 14 percent lower graduation rate than those with the least financial need.

Such financial hardship, the pair told attendees, can stem from many causes. Some have family who are unable or unwilling to help. Some are actually homeless. Others may have experienced unexpected expenses caused by medical or other issues. Competition for near-campus jobs also may be fierce.

But instead of seeking advice from instructors or others at the University, these students may choose to suffer in silence or simply not know what assistance is possible or whom to ask for help. Faculty members in the class said they had sometimes noticed a student crying, or changing from a dedicated class participant to frequently absent, or becoming confrontational about assignments that needed a large amount of time, a vehicle or other resources.

In a video shown to the class, four lower-income Pitt students talked about their struggles to afford college and excel here. They spoke of the social stigma financial difficulties created, of the energy it required to stay in school and the constant need to plan ahead — sometimes even having to support their families rather than vice versa. Trying to go to school while looking for a place to live and figuring out how to acquire enough food prompted one Pitt student to start the Collegiate Necessities Resource Coalition to connect first-generation and low-income students to help during school.

What faculty can do

Erika KesterbergKestenberg noted that she has stopped assigning textbooks in her classes altogether, relying instead on references freely available through the University Library System. Duck said he negotiates with publishers to provide a number of free textbooks to selected students when he assigns the book to his classes.

Class participants volunteered that e-books are a cheaper alternative to printed class materials, and that placing one copy of the textbook at Hillman Library makes it freely available 24 hours a day to all students. One participant noted that the provost’s office also offers faculty the chance to apply for grants for open educational resources, which includes textbooks and other course materials.

Another class participant said her own solution — placing school survival tips in her syllabi and inviting students to talk to her about college issues — had resulted in students approaching her for guidance. “I find myself doing a lot of triaging on the side,” she said.

Faculty members attending the class noted that Courseweb can run reports to pinpoint students whose classroom performance is slipping, and suggested being flexible about student deadlines for those struggling to get through school with financial difficulties.

Pitt’s online guide to resources for helping students contains links for emergency student loans, the University’s endowed book fund, student health insurance and employment help, disability resources and services and the Pitt Pantry for food assistance. The student counseling center also publishes a pamphlet, “Faculty & Staff Guide for Helping Distressed Students,” that offers a useful collection of such resources.

Marty Levine is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.