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Helping Hand: Resources & Support for Low Income College Students

Low-income college students face challenges that other learners do not, but that doesn’t mean they can’t overcome these obstacles and earn their degree. Continue reading to learn how low income impacts students and about resources they can access to help them succeed.

Author: Timon Kaple
Editor: STEPS Staff
Two female students in the library looking at a laptop.

Part of the reward of graduating from college is knowing that you overcame a variety of challenges along the way. However, low-income students are faced with additional challenges that other students may luckily avoid. A report from the White House determined that “Low-income students often lack the guidance and support they need to prepare for college, apply to the best-fit schools, apply for financial aid, enroll and persist in their studies, and ultimately graduate.” And while there’s no denying that low-income students face more barriers than their middle and upper-middle class counterparts, there are resources available to help them succeed. With the right support, low-income students can get help with everything from financial aid and affordable housing to enrolling in campus childcare. Keep reading to learn what’s available to you, as a low-income student, and gather valuable insight on school success along the way.

Am I a Low-Income College Student?

Low-income students are commonly categorized by their annual income and family size. You are considered to be low-income by the federal government if you are a student whose family’s taxable income does not exceed 150% of the poverty level amount. For an individual in the lower 48 states, that’s about $19,140 in earnings during 2019. There are a few groups of learners who are also more likely to be considered low-income, often because of their difficult life situations or lack of access to resources. This includes:


Single parents

Single parents are often in the low-income category because they’re usually living on one income while trying to take care of children. They may not have the luxury of having extra family members around to provide childcare, so they have serious expenses when it comes to paying for outside childcare, in addition to food, clothing, and shelter for their dependents.


First generation college students

About 50% of first-generation students come from low-income families and are more likely to part of a racial or ethnic minority group. In addition to challenges presented by racial inequality and discrimination in the U.S., first-generation students may have a harder time preparing and applying for school simply because it’s uncommon in their family.


Homeless youth

Homeless or unhoused youth face a variety of tough challenges when they’re on their own, without a place to live. They may also be without family, including parents or guardians, and no usable mailing address. Aside from financial hardships in terms of finding work and maintaining a steady income, this population might have a hard time filling out the necessary financial aid and scholarship forms because of their life situation.

Challenges & Solutions for Low-Income College Students

If you’re a low-income student looking into paying for your college education, you’ve probably already discovered a handful of unique challenges. Here’s a list of some of the significant hurdles you might face, along with some solutions that could help you out. This is not an all exhaustive list, but it covers the essential bases to help you get those most out of your college experience while making it more financially viable.

Challenge #1

Academic Preparation

Funding for education can drastically affect the resources available to both public and private schools, from elementary school through high school. Students coming from a low-income high school, whose academics and teaching suffered from a lack of support and resources, may not be as prepared to succeed in college as learners from better equipped schools. When you reach the college level, you might need to seek out additional academic support so you can perform to the best of your abilities and get the most out of your education. Consider some of these resources found on most college campuses or online:

Solution #1: Academic Advisors

Academic advisors can play an essential role in your success in college. They will help you identify your academic and personal strengths, put you in touch with support and resources, and make sure you get the most out of your time in school. Many schools offer online and in-person academic advising.

Solution #2: Tutors & Writing Centers

If you feel like a lack of writing skills or knowledge in a particular subject is holding you back from doing your best, you can seek out extra help through your school’s writing centers and tutoring programs. You’ll be able to locate these services in-person, on campus, or online, and usually for free. When in doubt, ask your advisor where to find the tutoring or writing services that will fit your needs best.

Solution #3: Academic Retention Programs

Many colleges today have special programs in place to ensure that students are happy with the educational experience available at the school and that they succeed academically. They are also prepared to support students in tough situations, including low-income learners, in the form of retention programs. Examples of these programs can be found at Florida State University and The University of Memphis.

Key Resources for Academic Preparation

There’s a lot of great, free information out there. Here’s some sources that can help you become more prepared both before and after you start college.

  1. Class Central’s Free Online College Prep Courses
  2. Class Central’s Free Online College Prep Courses
  3. Connections Academy’s Top 20 College Planning and Preparation Resources
  4. Saylor Academy: Free College-level courses online
  5. Getting Smart: 50 Top Sources of Free eLearning Courses

Support if You Need It

In addition to any academic support resources your high school or college may offer, there’s almost always professionals off-campus that can help you along the way. You can find support for either in-person or online tutoring. Your public library might also offer some tutoring options if they have an active volunteering network.

Challenge #2

Paying Tuition

College is a serious expenditure for just about anyone. Careful financial planning is necessary to make higher education a reality for most learners today. Many low-income students, however, did not have the resources to plan for school in this way and it often stands in the way of them earning a college degree. In fact, they’re eight times less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students from the top socioeconomic quartile. Thankfully, there’s a lot of excellent information and financial opportunities out there that, with some digging around in the right spots, can help just about anyone find a financial strategy to make it work for them. Here’s the top financial options to consider:

Solution #1: Financial Aid

Everyone should apply for financial aid, whether or not they think they need it or will qualify for it. Almost 75% of students today receive some kind of financial aid. You should always submit your FAFSA online before each academic year, which helps the federal government determine your eligibility for financial assistance, including student loans. Check out our financial aid hub page for more information.

Solution #2: Scholarships

There are tons of scholarships out there, whether through your school, a national nonprofit or organization, a local rotary club, or an individual. Amazingly, many of these scholarships, especially at the local level, don’t receive any applications some years. You should apply for every scholarship that you’d be a good candidate for, provided you have the time to spend on applications. This is free money that you don’t need to repay and is your best option to avoid taking on a bunch of loan debt. Our scholarship page has a list of the top 30 scholarships for public service students.

Solution #3: Grants

You can get grants through the federal government whether you’re attending a community college, four-year university, or career school. Grants are similar to scholarships in that they do not need to be repaid. The federal Pell Grant is a need-based financial award for learners who don’t already possess a degree or who are in a post-bachelor’s teacher certification program.

Key Resources to Tackle Tuition

A quick Google search will lead you down a rabbit hole of financial aid-focused sites. Many of them will help you better understand how financial aid works and where to locate additional resources. Be sure to check for scholarship opportunities in your local area, as you might be the only or one of a few applicants.

  1. Federal Student Aid: Grants
  2. CollegeScholarships.org: Low-Income Student Scholarships
  3. Federal Student Aid: Understanding Financial Aid
  4. U.S. News: A Guide to Understanding Financial Aid for College
  5. Investopedia: How Does Financial Aid Work?

Support if You Need It

In addition to what you find online, don’t be afraid to reach out to a financial aid or tuition counselor. They can assist you in a bunch of ways and can probably offer you quick solutions to any troubles you’re having regarding financial aid. Find the dedicated tuition-focused counselor at your school and make an appointment ASAP.

Challenge #3

Guidance & Mentorship

Sometimes all a student needs to succeed is a little advice and guidance from a trusted peer or professional. Mentorship can make the difference between simply surviving and really excelling in school. This can be especially true for low-income students. Mentors who are experienced in navigating college life can help you make the best academic and financial decisions, including how to get through your program efficiently while getting the most out of it. Consider talking with some of these key professionals:

Solution #1: College Counselors

It’s a college counselor’s job to make sure you’re on track, not wasting your credits or time, and generally excelling in school. They can also help you manage your financial choices and assist you in locating additional funding opportunities as needed. Lastly, they can play a crucial role in your job or internship searches when the time comes.

Solution #2: Professors & Grad Assistants

Professors and graduate students are also excellent resources for guidance. They know the ropes of your program, either as a teacher or student. Professors can often give you advice on how to navigate school, including some informal advice on financial related stuff and funding opportunities. Grad students often have some great tips and tricks on how to get through a program, save money, and more.

Solution #3: School Alumni

Alumni from your school can offer guidance, as well, especially regarding what life could look like for you immediately following graduation. They will have advice on preparing for and entering the competitive job market, and likely some financial tips as well. They can also connect you with resources and alums outside of school.

Key Resources for Finding Mentors

In addition to checking with your school about finding mentors and related opportunities, be sure to check out some outside sources too. This list includes both:

  1. StudentMentor.org
  2. UStrive
  3. Mentoring.org
  4. AVID.org
  5. America Mentors

Support if You Need It

Your school’s counseling center is probably the best place to start if you’re having trouble finding mentorships and advice on your own. Don’t be afraid to reach out to one of your professors and let them know of any questions or concerns you might have. They can point you in the right direction and even connect you with grad students or alumni that might be able to lend a hand.

Challenge #4

Residential Life & Student Housing

Of course, one of the most important aspects of being comfortable and ready to complete your schoolwork is having a place to live. Whether you’re going to live on campus or in a house or apartment nearby, it can be stressful to get it figured out, especially on a tight budget. Here’s some things to consider that have historically helped low-income students a great deal.

Solution #1: Affordable Apartments for College Students

If you’re not going to live on campus, you’re probably in the market to find an affordable rental. Most colleges and universities have a classified ads page where you can make a post expressing your interest in finding housing with another student or roommate. Additionally, your department may have suggestions on where to look. They might even be able to set you up with another student in your department. There’s also a bunch of sites, like sublet.com, to locate housing, and you can search by price to find something that fits your budget.

Solution #2: Residential Life Offices

Your school’s residential life office can help you and other low-include students find local housing options in your price range. Oftentimes, schools have good relationships with realtors or building managers in their area, so you’ll be able to get an inside track to a trustworthy place pretty easily this way.

Solution #3: College Housing Grants

The federal government will use your FAFSA information to see if you’re eligible for grant money. This money can be used for housing in addition to tuition and other living expenses. There may also be some housing grant money available to you at the state level, provided you meet certain criteria. Colleges and universities may also offer housing awards on their own, so check with your guidance counselor or financial aid office.

Solution #4: Section 8 Housing

Section 8 housing is a federal government program that helps low-income individuals and families afford housing. You’ll need to submit an application for Section 8 vouchers, which you can pick up at your local public housing agency. Bear in mind that, depending on the demand for Section 8 housing in your area, it can take a very long time until you get a voucher.

Solution #5: Catholic Charities

This organization can help you locate affordable housing options. They may also be able to offer some financial assistance. Catholic Charities can also set you up with a case manager to help you keep track of and manage finances while in school. Consider their Stay the Course program.

Key Resources for Securing Housing

Aside from resources you can get through your school, fellow students, grad students, and alumni, check out some of these other options to find affordable housing.

  1. ModestNeeds.org: Self-Sufficiency Grants
  2. USDA Rural Development Program
  3. United Way
  4. Uloop

Support if You Need It

You can get help with housing issues if you need some extra assistance. The aforementioned mentorship resources, including Mentoring.org and StudentMentor.org, can be good resources. Additionally, your student housing office should have a list of valuable housing resources in the area.

Challenge #5

Food & Family Services

Whether you’re an individual without any dependents, a single parent, or a parent with a partner, making ends meet as a student can be extremely challenging. In addition to issues with housing costs, many low-income students face difficulties when trying to provide food for themselves or their families. Furthermore, parents who are in school often need to find affordable daycare for their children in order to carry out the daily responsibilities of a college degree-seeker. Here’s some options to consider if you find yourself in any of these situations.

Solution #1: On-Campus Daycare

About 50% of colleges and universities offer some form of on-campus childcare services to help students and faculty take care of school-related responsibilities while they’re on campus. Check with your advisor or another parent in your program to learn more about on-campus daycare options.

Solution #2: Campus Kitchens

Food insecurity among students is on the rise and affects about 35-45% of college students today. Many schools offer on-campus kitchens with donated or grant-funded groceries to help students and their families who are struggling to get enough food each week. These programs at your school may also have a one-time or recurring grant opportunity that you can apply for, which could deliver you some extra cash for food.

Solution #3: Reduced-Cost Dining

The cost of meal plans and on-campus food purchases is often too high for many students to partake regularly, if at all. Your school might offer reduced-cost dining options, special programs for low-income students, including membership-based programs. You might even find that your school’s dining plans allow you to roll over “unused” meals into the next semester or school year. This allows you to stretch out a plan, avoid wasting money, and get the most out of whichever plans you choose to invest in.

Solution #4: College Food Banks

Many campuses have food pantries or food banks where you can pick up non-perishable canned foods and snacks. They may also offer basic necessities you might find at a drugstore, like paper products and toothpaste. While these may not offer you a long-term solution for food insecurity, they can offer you some quick support when you need it.

Solution #5: SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, is a federal government program in the U.S. that can help you get access to low-cost food when you’re in a pinch. Recent changes to the SNAP program have made it harder for students enrolled less than half-time to get these benefits. It is still worth your time to investigate this option. Also, check out our guide on applying for and receiving public assistance for more information and expert advice.

Solution #6: FoodPantries.org

This site can help you locate soup kitchens, food shelves, food banks, and local food pantries in your area. The site also provides one of the best non-profit and government subsidized grocery resources.

Key Resources for Food & Family Services

With some good searching around the web, you’ll be able to find both local and national resources that can help you with food instability, locating childcare, among other food and family services-related options for low-income learners.

  1. Student Loan Hero: Four Ways for College Student-Parents to Get Cheap Child Care
  2. College and University Food Bank Alliance
  3. Child Welfare Information Gateway
  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture: Find Meals for Kids When Schools are Closed
  5. All Recipes: Cheap and Easy Meals for College Students

Support if You Need It

There are several organizations out there that can provide you with additional emotional or financial support, and your on-campus counselors should be able to point you in the right direction if you’re having trouble finding what you need online. There’s also national organizations, like Flip National, that strives to support first-generation and low-income students on a variety of fronts.

Challenge #6


It’s not always easy to find affordable transportation, especially if you live in an area where public transit isn’t an option. But you need to get to class if you live off-campus without spending a fortune. By looking closely at what options your school might offer, and tapping your social network a bit, you might be able to find a cheap route to campus.

Solution #1: Campus Shuttles

Your school might have buses that follow predetermined routes and schedules that it uses to shuttle students around campus and nearby areas. This service is usually free to students with a valid school ID. Even if you are charged a transportation fee for the semester, it’ll likely be much cheaper than paying to ride a metro system’s buses.

Solution #2: Carpooling

If you have a friend who owns a vehicle, it’s a good idea to try to carpool with them to save money. Especially if your friend is going to drive to campus anyway, they are probably willing to give you a lift for free if you can adjust to their scheduling needs. Alternatively, you can post to classifieds sections about wanting to carpool with other students, especially if your school offers that kind of discussion board. Be careful when dealing with strangers online, however, and try your best to only interact with other students.

Solution #3: Campus Bicycle Programs

Bikes are a great way to get around campus and back to your place while getting some much-needed exercise. Check out if your school operates an on-campus bike rental program. At some schools, you can rent a bike for a full semester for as cheap as $30 a semester. There are also public bike rentals from companies like Lime.

Solution #4: Buses & Walking

If you live in a metro area that has invested in a good bus line, you’ll be able to get most places in town, including campus. Many bus lines have a deal worked out with local educational institutions, and you should be able to get a discounted rate. Buses, coupled with stretching your legs and walking a bit, is a cheap way to get around.

Key Resources for Getting to Class

Whatever your current situation or preferences for transportation might be, you’ll need to have a plan to get to campus. You’ll also need a backup plan in the case of inclement weather, your friend’s car breaks down, or if there’s some other unexpected event.

  1. Bike Repair Tips
  2. Bird Scooters
  3. Lime Bikes
  4. The Parker App
  5. Money Crashers: Can You Live Without a Car? – Cost Savings, Benefits, and Alternatives

Support if You Need It

Your school’s website will have detailed information on what kinds of transportation is available to students, whether through the school or local services. If you need a car of your own, there’s organizations like Vehicles for Change and Working Cars for Working Families that might be able to help.

Challenge #7

Textbooks & School Supplies

After tuition and housing expenses, in addition to whatever daily expenses life throws at you, it can be difficult for students to scrounge up the cash for their books and supplies. There are some obvious and some not so well-known options out there for students looking to keep more bread in the bank every time a new class schedule comes along. Here are some good suggestions on how to cut back on the overall amount you spend each semester.

Solution #1: Public Libraries

The public library offers you a free place to study and provides you with free access to books. While you might not be able to find everything you need there, especially textbooks required for class, you’ll be able to get your hands on materials for any research or school projects you need. You’ll also have access to free computers and wifi.

Solution #2: Textbook Rentals & Amazon.com

Let’s face it, you’re probably not going to need that textbook forever. Unless it’s something you’re really going to need down the line, renting textbooks is a great option. This is a popular niche in the education industry these days, so there are a lot of options out there and we offer some links below. Amazon is also a popular choice for students, both because it offers rentals and used books that you can get with the click of the mouse.

Solution #3: E-Books

E-books are digital copies of regular books that you can read on your computer or handheld device. Since there’s no manufacturing costs involved to generate a traditional book, e-books are usually much cheaper than their hardcopy counterparts. They’re also much lighter and easier to carry than the real thing.

Solution #4: Book Swaps

Some schools have book swap programs where you can find students who have taken your class previously and borrow their book. If you have a collection of books of your own, maybe you can work out a trade through official book swaps or your social contacts around campus. Remember, many intro classes and required courses often have a lot of students in each section. It might be easier to locate someone with the book than you think.

Key Resources for Affording School Supplies

With the internet at your fingertips, it’s a little easier to get creative and save cash on books and supplies than it used to be. You just have to know where to look sometimes. Check out these sources for some quick money-saving tips:

  1. U.S. News: 12 Ways to Cut Your Textbook Costs
  2. The Penny Hoarder: 11 Ways to Save Money on College Textbooks
  3. SavingForCollege.com: How to Afford College Textbooks
  4. CampusBooks.com
  5. TextbookRentals.com

Support if You Need It

Your professors and academic advisor should be able to point you to valuable resources for finding the appropriate books and supplies. They’ve likely helped other students in the past and know what works and what doesn’t. Additionally, there are scholarships available to help learners cover the cost of books, you just need to dig to find them sometimes.

Challenge #8

Healthcare & Medical Services

Healthcare isn’t cheap for most people living in the U.S. and many of us don’t have health insurance. In fact, there are about 30 million uninsured citizens in the U.S. today. Luckily, as a student, you have some options to get the care you need. It’s important to take advantage of these services when you need them to ensure your physical and mental well-being. Try to always see a doctor or specialist when you need it, as your health is of the utmost importance and affects your performance in school.

Solution #1: Campus Healthcare Services

Most colleges and universities offer their students free or greatly reduced-cost health services, both for your physical and mental health. These services are usually offered right on campus or virtually through a designated app or site. You can even get medications through the campus pharmacy, in most cases. Like all doctors’ offices, these services are confidential, and you should never hesitate to take advantage of them.

Solution #2: Campus Mental Health Services

College can be stressful, and that includes academics, your social life, and finances. Mental health services on campus provide a great service, especially for those first-time patients who haven’t had mental health counseling or treatment before. With college can come big changes in your life and it’s okay, and perfectly normal, to get help from medical professions when you’re having a hard time.

Solution #3: Homeless Health Clinics

Depending on your location, and if you’re a remote or on-campus student, you might have easier access to homeless health clinics. You don’t have to be an unhoused individual to go to one of these clinics. They offer services for low-income people, as well. Policies will differ between facilities but many of these clinics subscribe to a “pay-what-you-can” model.

Solution #4: Helplines

Low-income students can also take advantage of free helplines to get medical advice. There are different services out there, some with nurses on-call, others with medical doctors. They can serve as a source of advice regarding any concerns you might have. They can also make a physician or specialist referral for you.

Key Resources for Finding Healthcare

Your first order of business in terms of healthcare is to check what types of services you can get through your school. Remember, even if you are a remote learner, you will likely still have access. Secondly, there’s some outside sources that will help you get the care you need, when you need, for more affordable rates. Consider these options:

  1. Nurses On-Call
  2. Curai Health Remote Care
  3. National Health Care for the Homeless Council
  4. Healthcare.gov Student Health Plans
  5. Medicaid

Support if You Need It

Colleges and universities with healthcare services on campus usually have a dedicated website for those facilities. Check to see if your school has a direct line or email so you can contact professionals directly. Additionally, if your campus doesn’t have an emergency line, or if you’re unable to get an appointment when you need it, you can always call 911 or 24-hour medical help lines such as Independent Health’s emergency line at 1-800-501-3439. They may offer a better solution than an emergency room.

Don’t Forget the Hidden Fees

Some low-income students do everything right, and even with solid grades, good test scores, and scholarships, the hidden fees and sudden expenses add up and you can find yourself in over your head quickly. If you think about it, there’s $50-75 application fees, deposits to hold your spot at the school or in the dorm, additional on-campus activity or transportation fees, down payments and security deposits for apartment rentals, and more. While some of these things may be an unfortunate requirement, some of them can be avoided. Here are some resources to keep in mind to avoid exorbitant costs:

Emergency Aid

Emergency aid is just that, help for an emergency. All other aid and funding options should be exhausted first. Emergency aid may come from your school itself, the government, private individuals, or nonprofits. In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, the federal government is offering student financial aid grants, which are distributed to universities. Then, the aid will be divided amongst learners affected by the virus. Unfortunately, this aid was designed with only on-campus and hybrid learners in mind. So, if you’re a fully remote, online-only student, you are ineligible for this type of aid. Alternatively, you should contact your school’s financial aid office to find out if they have any emergency funds in place for at-risk and low-income learners. They might have emergency grants, completion scholarships, vouchers, or emergency loans available.


Colleges and universities know that their low-income student population needs extra attention and accommodations now and again. To help learners without expendable cash, many schools offer waivers for a number of fees. You will have to check with your advisor and the financial aid office to be sure what’s available to you, if you qualify, and how you fill out a waiver. You might be able to get a fee waiver for several things, including, but not limited to, application fees, books and supplies, graduation fees, lab equipment rentals, standardized test fees, transcription request fees, and field trips.