Financial worries pile on before graduation

Money troubles interfere with the academic performance of about one-third of all college students, and a similar number of students regularly skip buying required academic materials because of the costs, according to a survey released Thursday.

In an era of stagnant incomes and rising tuition and student debt, the burden of college costs on families and former students is well documented. But the new findings, from the National Survey of Student Engagement, show that financial worries are a major source of stress for undergraduates while they are still in school.

About three-fifths of students surveyed reported that they often worry about having enough money to cover ordinary costs, and students who spend the most hours at paying jobs are, not surprisingly, those feeling the most financial stress. Among those who work more than 20 hours a week, about three-fifths said that their jobs got in the way of school work.

“For far too many students, this is a real obstacle to achievement,” said Alexander C. McCormick, director of the survey, which included 285,000 students at 577 four-year colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

McCormick, an associate professor of education at Indiana University, said money troubles had always existed for some students, but “since the 2008 recession, it’s something we need to view more seriously.”

The survey findings parallel those in studies by the American College Health Association, which show that as a drain on students’ mental health, finances rank second only to academics, and ahead of intimate relationships, lack of sleep and family problems. About one-third of students in those surveys say that in the prior year, financial concerns have been “traumatic or very difficult to handle.”

The National Survey of Student Engagement dates to 2000 and is conducted annually, concentrating primarily on academic issues. The survey does not release scores by institution, but it does show colleges their own results and how they compare with their peers. School administrators have come to see it as a valuable tool for assessing their institutions.

As in the past, this year’s survey asked students about practices that research has shown to improve learning, like frequent interaction with professors, collaboration with other students, studying abroad and doing internships. The results showed sharp variations by demographics and major area of study.

Students in sciences like astronomy, biochemistry and physics, for example, were more than twice as likely as their peers in other fields to participate in research with faculty members, and among the least likely to combine their academics with some kind of community service.

Black students were more likely to work collaboratively than those in other racial and ethnic groups. Women spent significantly more hours studying than men did, and students at undergraduate colleges of arts and sciences studied more than those at universities with graduate programs.

For the first time, the survey asked why students chose their majors, and more than half said a central reason was having the skills to find a job and advance a career. Students in science and technology fields were far more likely than others to give that answer, while white students were far less likely than their Hispanic, black or Asian classmates.

This year’s survey also looked at the booming population of college students who take their classes online, who tend to be older than traditional college students. It found that the remote learners spent more time studying — which is consistent with the age difference — but fell short on many other measures of engagement.