For many young people, moving from home to university means taking their first steps towards financial independence. Whether it’s budgeting, paying bills or saving, there is so much students need to learn before they first arrive on campus. Especially as costs continue to rise while student funding fails to keep pace, the real cost of university can come as a shock to new students.
Lynne Condell MBE, HE expert, hosts a panel discussion with three industry experts focussing on how to financially prepare applicants for the real cost of student life, including:
- What challenges do this generation of applicants face?
- How can universities identify the most vulnerable applicants?
- What should we tell applicants to be prepared for at different times of the year?
- Should staff encourage applicants to get part-time work?
- How can staff signpost available support?
- What one piece of money advice would you give a person that had just finished their A-Levels and was going to start university?
Meet the panellists
- Dr Dominique Thompson – an award-winning GP, national mental health expert and TEDx speaker and author of “How to Grow a Grown Up: Prepare Your Teen for the Real World”
- Phil Bakstad – Associate Dean: Diversity and Inclusion at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU)
- Vivi Friedgut – CEO and Founder of Blackbullion and author of “Stay Financially Healthy while you study”
What challenges do this generation of applicants face?
Around 70% of students are between the ages of 18-24, and for this generation, more broadly, life is very different compared to what pre-pandemic applicants may have experienced.
For Dr Dom, bad mental health is one of the biggest challenges future applicants face as the cost of living crisis intensifies stresses that always would have come along with the move from home to university.
To help applicants with these mental health struggles, Dr Dom suggested three things for staff to consider when reaching out to applicants pre-arrival:
- Anxiety: Young people are facing a particularly tough time right now, so it is important for staff to appreciate that anxiety has spiked recently and to keep this in mind during any correspondence with applicants
- Independence: At the same time, staff should encourage applicants to use university as a chance to build their independence and to get used to making their own decisions
- Connections: Helping give applicants information on building connections and friendships when they arrive at university can be a great way to alleviate anxiety while simultaneously encouraging independence. This could be done by signposting things like societies and social events early in the application process
While the panel agreed that bad mental health is a huge challenge facing applicants, Vivi added that mismanaged personal finance could exacerbate existing worries and stress.
For Vivi, teaching applicants that personal finance and mental health aren’t mutually exclusive but strongly linked is crucial. If applicants learn how to manage their finances before university, it can free up head space for the critical mental health challenges Dr Dom refers to.
Vivi suggested two skills that applicants could learn to mitigate financial problems and create more time to focus on their mental health at university:
- Budgeting: Having a basic grasp of how to help your money last for longer is essential for prospective students as, for many, arriving on campus will be the first time they are responsible for paying their bills and everyday items
- Home cooking: Teaching students how to cook is one of the easiest ways to save money, especially as food prices continue to rise at their fastest rate in over 45 years
Students without the support of family
At LJMU, Phil works with some applicants who come to university without the support of families, which is an important factor for staff to consider when providing information to prospective students.
Applicants from some form of independent living, like the Care sector, may already have experience making their money last.
For example, some of the students Phil works with have been on universal credit from their teens and don’t need as much help as other students learning how to make their money go further. However, estranged students can be specifically affected by the cost of living crisis in many other ways.
Even for particularly money-savvy applicants, Phil still sees an underlying issue that student finance has not risen at the same rate as everything else – leaving students to make up the difference.
How can universities identify the most vulnerable applicants?
Use a data-driven approach
At LJMU, student data can be a strong tool to predict applicants who are particularly vulnerable to high costs ahead of time, allowing staff to think about the support that would be needed in advance of the applicants’ arrival.
By analysing applicant and student data, LJMU can begin to identify certain indicators of vulnerability. For example, Phil spoke about how data analysis can show there are certain postcodes from which some struggling applicants are more likely to come from.
These insights could also allow staff to target vulnerable cohorts of students well in advance of arrival and have conversations with them early about what they can and cannot afford, such as helping them make decisions about whether to stay in accommodation on or off campus.
Signpost on social media
The panel agreed that when identifying vulnerable applicants, the earlier, the better. However, Dr Dom pointed out that many Higher Education Providers (HEPs) need more ways for staff to reach out to potential applicants pre-arrival.
Dr Dom suggested social media as a great way to help get the message out to prospective students about the support available to them, should they need it. It means applicants can reach out directly to staff and learn more about their options.
Track student inflation
While Phil spoke about using data to, over time, collate postcodes that vulnerable applicants are more likely to come from, Vivi suggested that students would benefit from greater transparency about the real cost of university on their campus. Delving deeper into “student inflation” would be an additional way for applicants to determine their financial preparedness for university.
Vivi spoke about the early thoughts behind Blackbullion’s upcoming student inflation tracker. Students can often be hit the hardest by inflation as the highest inflationary items, such as food, often represent a large portion of students’ spend, so applicants will need to account for how inflation affects the price of their transport, accommodation and food.
With this tool, staff would be able to see areas where inflation is especially high and plan support for applicants who may become more vulnerable, moving to live in high-inflation areas.
Even with this, Vivi said students will always experience a shortfall when facing macroeconomic events. That’s where ‘Money Ready for Uni’ has always come in – helping staff onboard applicants while notifying them of all available scholarships and bursaries, so applicants who need support can easily access them.
What should we tell applicants to be aware of during different times of the year?
Provide a timeline for applicants
Timelines will differ for every institution, but the whole panel agreed that waiting until students have arrived is too late to work out budgeting. Finding ways to provide a timeline to potential applicants of costs to watch out for can be a great way to aid them in their transition.
This information and advice needs to be given before arrival to ensure that when students receive their student loan in September, they can make it last until their next loan payment.
In Phil’s experience, students who have not worked out a budget pre-arrival tend to start running out of money by November time.
We can’t wait until students arrive with us to say – let’s work out your budget now.
Phil gave three tips for critical times for staff to keep in mind to help prepare their applicants financially:
- September – At LJMU, staff can use the accommodation booking process to look for early indicators of applicants who may need extra support upon arrival. These indicators can be applicants looking to book their accommodation but can’t get a guarantor or independent students struggling to get their student finance assessed
- November and December – For LJMU, there can be a huge rush in November and December for applicants to book accommodation to the point where students will book extremely expensive private accommodation to make sure they have somewhere to stay. Changing the messaging to indicate there isn’t a rush could help ease this pressure and save applicants money
- December holidays – It can be helpful to remind applicants they will need to reapply for their student funding during the winter holidays because this is something that LJMU sees is regularly forgotten
Make a calendar of small, fun, seasonal expenses
Dr Dom suggested that staff should be cautious leading with the big costs of student life with things like housing, as there is a danger of overwhelming prospective students.
Instead, Dr Dom suggested creating a calendar of small seasonal costs that come with student life, such as freshers’ week, the cost of clubs and societies and trips back home.
Initially, this calendar could help students budget in a way that encourages them to meet their peers and make connections while giving them an idea of upcoming costs. From there, staff could weave in the larger costs – such as housing – without overwhelming the applicant.
Encourage communication with parents
Vivi agreed staff can never over communicate but also recognised a limit to how far HEPs can reach out to potential applicants. Schools also have a limit on how much they can do to teach financial literacy to prepare young people for this next academic step.
The average school is delivering 1 hour per year of what they class as financial literacy.
Therefore, parents (or guardians) will likely be the most influential figure for any applicant. Aiming communications at prospective parents/guardians could be a good solution to ensure they can give useful materials to their children/young people who are applying.
Should staff encourage applicants to get part-time work?
Destigmatising part-time work
At LJMU, Phil spoke about how students can sometimes be reluctant to get part-time work alongside their studies. This tended to stem from the embarrassment applicants felt when they needed more money or the fact that they thought the student loan was supposed to cover everything.
Phil suggested changing how part-time work, within reasonable hours, is promoted as a normal and positive thing to fund studies.
The job doesn’t need to be degree specific
With health and medical degrees, Dr Dom spoke about how students can be cautious to take on any part-time work that doesn’t relate directly to experience for their degree.
Some of this relates to the pressure students feel to get a certain degree result, feeling that any job that isn’t directly related could detract from their end degree result.
Talk to applicants about the importance of ‘soft skills’
Changing the narrative around part-time work so that applicants don’t see it as an inconvenience is essential to give applicants another way of making money.
Vivi said it’s essential to move applicants away from the idea that part-time work is just to earn a little bit of extra money. Instead, it should be framed as a step on the career ladder and an opportunity to develop vital ‘soft skills’ for the future.
‘Soft skills’ like time management, commitment, and teamwork are invaluable for students in the long run and will always come in handy no matter the career route they choose to pursue.
Vivi added the caveat that as long as students aren’t over the recommended fifteen hours of work a week or taking on multiple jobs, having a part-time job alongside university can be extremely valuable for both their long and short-term careers.
How can staff signpost the available support?
Acknowledge most students won’t understand HE terms
Phil said it can be easy to assume that students are familiar with terms like bursary and grant because staff speak this language daily. But in Phil’s experience, applicants often arrive not knowing what these terms mean and, therefore, could struggle knowing what support is available.
Sometimes, it can be easy to use language within the HE sector and assume it carries the same meaning for students.
To combat this, LJMU communicates through popular social channels like Instagram and TikTok as a way of getting the information to new students that they need, using a medium that is more familiar and accessible to them.
While Vivi agreed with the importance of spreading the word, she also spoke about the importance of centralising support funds so applicants have one place to access the support they might need.
Sometimes things can be more confusing when certain funds are in different places – for example, if a student must seek hardship support in one place and other support: whether it be academic, support funds or scholarships in another.
Creating one centralised location for funds could make it easier for students to find support when needed and be aware of the full breadth of support that is available to them.
Vivi added that a survey done through the Scholarship Hub by students found there is an appetite for opportunities, not just funding. When asked, “Would you rather get 5,000 pounds a year or 3,000 pounds and an internship?” – 100% of the students said they would want the 3,000 pounds and an internship.
Spread the word on campus
If students aren’t signposted pre-arrival, Dr Dom suggested there are things academic departments could do to signpost support early in the term.
Whether it’s at an introductory lecture, or an early 1 to 1, academic staff could provide information to students on day one to make sure they’re aware of the support on offer.
What one piece of money advice would you give a person that had just finished their A-Levels and was going to start university?
Spend as little as possible in the first week
Phil shared stories from onboarding at LJMU, where applicants arrived having already spent large amounts of money on expensive clothing and luxury items.
Due to this, Phil said it’s important to advise students not to spend their money on expensive goods, as that money will be needed throughout the whole semester.
Be aware of peer pressure
Dr Dom argued there is a balance to be struck between giving students advice that is easy to remember while not over-simplifying what is a very complex topic.
For example, telling an applicant: “don’t spend what you haven’t got”, may be an easy piece of advice to give a student – but it doesn’t account for large economic factors at play that would make it much harder for the student to stick to this advice.
Instead, Dr Dom suggested giving students one thing to look out for on the social side of university life that could save students money. Dr Dom suggested letting students know to be aware of peer pressure specifically, as it can make it hard for students not to overspend if their friends are doing the same.
Helping spread awareness about peer pressure and teaching students that it’s ok to say no to friends or social events if it means not running out of money or spending money they don’t have.
Share and listen to other students’ money experiences
Vivi mentioned an early Blackbullion ‘little white lie’ download, which gave students polite ways to say no to social events that they couldn’t afford.
Now, peer pressure doesn’t only exist between students who are in close proximity to one another, but online – as social media influencers encourage habits that aren’t necessarily good for students’ finances.
Vivi also added that our Money Confessions campaign is a great way for students to share their money stories on our social media. For students, this not only creates a safe space to share but also for them to read the cautionary tales of other students.
With that in mind, Vivi said that student budgeting will always boil down to being aware of balancing what applicants have coming in and what they have going out. If applicants can master this skill, they can dramatically mitigate the financial challenges that they’ll face at university.
Watch the recording
You can find Dr Dom’s website here for more information about helping students with their mental health.
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