Nearly half of America’s college students drop out before receiving a degree, and financial reasons are the main culprit. Because of this, colleges are researching and attempting strategies to understand and proactively reach students who are at risk of dropping out due to work and financial barriers.

When prospective students research the institution that is best for them, they ask themselves three fundamental questions: Does this institution offer the degree I want? Will I fit in at this institution? Can I afford this institution? As an industry, we are continually focused on strategies and identifying high-impact practices surrounding this phase of the student experience to assist with moving them along the continuum. However, as the higher ed community continues to understand the psychosocial make-up of their student body, they are identifying that a more integrated and rounded approach to student engagement and communication is required to increase the probability of students persisting to completion.

According to a study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, more than half of those who dropped out of their higher education institution say that the “need to work and make money” while attending classes was the major reason they left. “Those who dropped out are almost twice as likely to cite problems juggling work and school as their main problem as they are to blame tuition bills.” When students work because they have to – not because they want to, education becomes a hindrance. These students then reflect on those questions they asked themselves in the onset and begin to doubt their ability to afford a higher education.

As tuition and fees continue to rise for state colleges the difficulty for government aid becomes more commonplace. This is coupled with the fact that community college students are exponentially more exposed to the risk of financially-induced drop outs than students at four-year universities. Research has shown that community college students are more likely to be from low-income families, first in their family to attend college, enrolled part-time and year-round workers. Students at two-year colleges funded a higher proportion of college costs from their own income and savings than students at four-year schools.

Because of these realities, community college students require “high touch” and “low jargon” communication to ensure that students are aware of their financial aid options. They need regular communication on how their academic standing is impacting their funding, and need opportunities to offset school or life expenses due to new and upcoming grant opportunities.

Through the increased popularity of CRMs throughout higher ed, many colleges are implementing communications strategies that ensure students remain on the path of enrollment for college. They have implemented separate communications strategies for financial aid communications (often within their ERP or financial aid systems), to ensure they are communicating with current students based on the institution’s compliance obligations. But, the reality is that students with financial barriers need much more.

Institutions must integrate financial aid communications throughout all retention and persistence communication, and no longer look at their Foundation to send communications regarding grant opportunities and financial aid – this should be a major element of the college-wide communication strategy. For example, every college faces issues with students’ inability to pay prior to deadlines, withdrawing students due to academic standing and placing students on academic probation. But, for students who have faced financial obstacles throughout their life, these issues are foreign to them. Therefore, proactive, personal and timely communication, integrated within existing communications strategies, that drives students to platforms that share their financial status, grant opportunities and degree plan ensures they have the information at their fingertips.

Through collaboration with all departments, there would be one strategy when communicating with students, that would deliver drip communication to students, in a way that is digestible and relevant for them at the time – no more and no less. This approach ensures that the institution is speaking with one voice and is managing communications to make sure nothing is missed, therefore increasing the probability that the student will receive less emails and will not perceive emails from the institution as spam.

Every institution shares the goal of teaching, coaching and advising their students on being a successful graduate. This starts with integrating financial conversations throughout their time at your institution. There is no silver bullet to how to increase retention rates for students who are at risk of dropping out due to financial woes. But, there are approaches that the industry has shown works for onboarding and student engagement. It is worth the exploratory process to see if financial aid should play a role within the overall master plan for student communication.