Financial struggles make it harder for students to connect and engage in their university community

New research from Wonkhe and Pearson finds connections between students' financial struggles, wellbeing, and academic progress. Gail Capper and Debbie McVitty report the findings

Gail Capper is Outcomes and Insight Manager at Pearson

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

A year ago in October 2022 we published the findings of a year long project on student belonging, The four foundations of belonging at university. Our original research didn’t find any significant interaction between financial circumstances and belonging. Now, in the wake of rapid inflation fuelling widespread cost of living pressures across the UK, our new research suggests that picture has changed.

There’s plenty of data out there about the scale of the impact of cost of living pressures on students – for example from the Office for National Statistics. Our focus was not on adding to the wealth of national data but on taking a more granular approach to understand how struggling with costs might interact with academic experience, feelings about university, mental health, and belonging.

In the spring and summer of 2023 Wonkhe and Pearson advertised a student survey via Wonkhe SUs-subscribed students’ unions exploring the ways that rising cost of living is shaping students’ educational experience and sense of belonging. 908 students took the survey. Students from two institutions – one a large research-intensive university in the North of England, and the other a post-92 university in the South of England – constituted the majority of the sample.

Our sample is not nationally representative (though it does include a broad base of students across the various demographic categories) so its primary value is in exploring the correlations between answers rather than in giving a picture of the student experience in general.

You can download demographic data and key charts from the research here.

Key findings

Nearly all respondents are feeling adverse effects from cost of living challenges. But we found consistent differences between those who say they are struggling to meet basic living costs and those that say they can meet basic living costs, including on self-reported mental health where students who are struggling are more likely to report worsening mental health.

The association with belonging and belonging-associated concepts like community, confidence, and connection, is modest but persistent across the various questions we asked. This suggests that cost of living challenges could be among the various factors impacting on students’ sense of belonging, and should be considered alongside the other factors we have explored in earlier research – potentially as an exacerbating influence rather than a factor in itself.

The most stark differences emerged on questions relating to the academic experience – particularly being on track with learning, feeling able to focus on learning, and having a support network of friends. Students reported that cost of travel to campus is a key factor in whether they attend scheduled teaching time. The picture emerging is one in which keeping up with study presents a range of practical challenges for students who are experiencing financial hardship, which may impact on students’ academic performance and ability to access the wider student experience.

Unlike in our previous research on belonging there is also a clear “exclusion” effect – students who struggle are three times as likely to say they feel excluded from university due to their financial situation and are less likely to feel their university or SU is trying to support with cost of living. They are also less likely to feel comfortable seeking support of any kind.

Our research cannot explain exactly why the 44.1 per cent who feel uncomfortable accessing support, despite struggling with covering costs, feel that way. Reasonable hypotheses from the research might include the fact that those students still see others who are in greater need so feel undeserving or because they attach some stigma to asking. Whatever the reason, given the risks we identified in earlier research about the interaction of low belonging, poor mental health and academic challenges, financial struggle should be taken into account in thinking about students who might be at risk in some way.

Despite the challenges, most students feel that university remains the right choice for them – but qualitative comments indicate that for many this is contingent on securing a graduate-level job. For others, the opportunity to develop independence, and socialise are key to making the experience worthwhile.

Mindful that universities and students’ unions do not have infinite funds available to help struggling students, these findings suggest that a supportive learning environment that seeks to build connections and is attuned to students’ struggles, coupled with doubling down on graduate employability could be a meaningful response to the cost of living crisis. While support and advice do not help with the cost of food, energy, or travel, they could help to mitigate some of the psychological impact of struggling with finances and reinforce the idea that despite everything, the university experience has been worthwhile.

Current financial situation and impact of cost of living challenges

We asked respondents about their current financial situation based on their ability to cover what we described as “basic living costs, such as heating, food, and rent.” 6 out of 10 (60.5 per cent) said that they were generally able to cover basic living costs, and around third (35.4 per cent) said they were struggling to cover basic living costs. These two groups formed our comparator groups throughout the survey analysis.

A small number (4.1 per cent) said they often cannot meet basic living costs – which we did not consider provided a large enough sample to make this category of student viable as a comparator group, so we focused our analysis on comparing those that said they could meet basic costs, and those that said they were struggling.

We asked how students are funding their day to day living costs. 60.1 per cent had taken out a UK maintenance loan, 45.6 per cent were undertaking paid work, 44.5 per cent selected “support from family/friends” and 37.3 per cent selected savings. Most students need to source additional funds to top up their student maintenance loans to support the day to day costs of attending university.

Due to my lack of finances / requirement to work I can’t attend clubs or socials any more. Lonely life.

Students who said they struggle to meet basic living costs were more likely to be mature – 58.3 of those aged over 23 said they were struggling to meet basic costs compared to 30.9 per cent of 17-22 year olds. Students who struggle to meet basic living costs were also more likely to be disabled – 24 per cent of this group reported being disabled compared to 15 per cent of those who said they could meet basic costs.

Notably, students who are struggling to meet basic costs are more likely than students who can meet basic costs to say that they would not feel comfortable accessing available support from their university or students’ union such as financial support or subsidised provision, or wellbeing support. 44.1 per cent of those struggling say they would not be comfortable with accessing available support compared to 23.4 per cent of those able to cover basic costs.

It’s important to contextualise our approach by noting that we’re not comparing well-off with less well-off students. When we asked about the adverse impact of cost of living challenges only 7.1 per cent of respondents selected none of the offered choices. More students who reported they were struggling to meet basic living costs reported adverse effects from cost of living challenges, and these students selected more of the available options, suggesting impacts across a larger range of areas. But more than half of all respondents said their social lives, their eating habits, their mental health, and their participation in student activities were affected by cost of living challenges.

Chart: What areas of your life are adversely affected by cost-of-living challenges (select all that apply)?

Engagement with learning and learning experience

In the graph above students who are struggling to cover costs are more likely to say that their attendance and their academic performance has been affected by cost of living challenges.

When we asked students about the practical issues impacting on their access to learning (either face to face or online) we found that even among students who can meet basic living costs, there are issues, although not on the same scale as for those who are struggling.

Chart: Which of these things regularly impact on your ability to access your teaching or learning (on campus or online)?

We asked a number of questions on a four point scale about students’ learning experience and sense of confidence, connection and support on their course. Students who are struggling to meet basic costs were somewhat less likely to agree in every case – though the largest differences relate to feeling on track and able to focus, and having a support network.

Chart: Please indicate to what extent you agree with the following statements about your course this semester (% Strongly agree/mostly agree)

Due to work and care commitments I have not been able to immerse myself into university life and also I struggle getting my academic work completed to the standard which I would like.

While we can’t give details about the nature of the relationship between students’ ability to meet their costs and their ability to stay on track with learning, the research suggests that a relationship exists, and that is concerning. It suggests that students’ academic experience and performance could be affected by their financial circumstances – something that chimes with student outcome data seen elsewhere in the education system. The nature of this relationship and what universities might do to help students in this position merit further exploration.

At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to cope but with support from peers and teaching staff I feel that I am capable.

Attendance at scheduled teaching hours

We asked about frequency of attendance at scheduled teaching hours and the majority of respondents (90.4 per cent) affirmed they are expected to attend in person teaching. 64.2 per cent said they typically attend more than 75 per cent of scheduled teaching time, and a further 18.5 per cent said they attend 50-75 per cent. There was a difference between students who can meet basic costs and those who are struggling: 67 per cent of those who can meet basic costs report they attend more than 75 per cent of classes, compared to 59 per cent of those who are struggling.

We did not see significant differences in attitudes to face to face learning that could give context to this difference – most students in both groups said they would attend face to face if they could. When asked to rank factors they take into account in decision-making about whether to attend scheduled teaching “how much money it will cost to go in” was ranked first, with 32.6 per cent selecting this as their first choice.

However, when comparing the choices most likely to be ranked between one and three with those most likely to be ranked four to seven, “Whether my course mates will be attending” emerges as the most popular choice, ranked one to three by 62.6 per cent of respondents. Cost comes second, ranked one to three by 60.3 per cent, and “whether I plan to use other facilities” third at 52.9 per cent. Less popular choices were “whether I have done the pre-work” (47.9 per cent), “whether it is close to the exam/assessment” (33.2 per cent), “whether I have the motivation to go” (30.1 per cent) and “the quality of teaching” (13.2 per cent).

 % ranking 1% ranking 1-3
Whether my course-mates will be attending27.1%62.6%
How much money it will cost to go in32.6%60.3%
Whether I plan to use other facilities e.g. the library, sports facilities14.5%52.9%
Whether I have done the pre-work11.1%47.9%
Whether it is close to the exam/ assessment5.9%33.2%
Whether I have the motivation to go6.2%30.1%
The quality of teaching2.6%13.2%

I am getting good grades and enjoying university. But, it does make it hard to engage/focus when for example electric bills are climbing…Also being part time I have to pay council tax which is another large cost.

Mental health

There was an association between self-reported changes in mental health since the start of the academic year and degree of financial challenge. We asked students to rate their mental health out of ten coming into university in autumn 2022. The mean response was 6, and 63.6 per cent rated their mental health at 6 or above, with the remaining 36.4 per cent rating their mental health at 5 or below.

We also asked whether respondents’ mental health had got better or worse since the start of the year. 37.2 per cent said it had got worse, compared with 27.8 per cent who said it had improved and 35 per cent who reported no change. Students who said they struggle to meet basic living costs were more likely to say their mental health had got worse – 44.7 per cent of students who struggle reported their mental health had got worse compared to 32 per cent of students who said they could meet basic living costs.

I would not enthusiastically recommend [university] to anyone with physical/mental health difficulties who is also low income.

This suggests that while financial struggles are hardly the sole context for mental health challenges, that there is an association between financial challenge and mental health. We know that there is also an association between self-reported mental health and belonging – students who say they feel a sense of belonging at university are more likely to report they have average or above mental health.

Chart: In your opinion, how has your mental health changed since coming to university this year?

I enjoy learning, I love studying. However I have not been able to connect socially or find people who are like me or made any friends. Mostly because of my mental health.

Feelings about university

We asked whether students feel like they belong at their university and a similar proportion – 71.2 per cent – agreed as in our 2022 survey on belonging (69 per cent), although the two datasets are not directly comparable, as we asked the question in a different way.

Our questions on feelings about university focused on feelings of connection or exclusion, feeling supported with cost of living, and feeling positive about the value of time at university. Across all the questions we found differences between students who could meet basic living costs and those who said they were struggling to meet basic living costs.

I have experienced burnout a lot since being at university which is making me question whether it is the right choice.

It’s noticeable that students who say they struggle with meeting basic living costs are less likely to feel that their university or students’ union is trying to support students with the cost of living, and less likely to say that the available support has been well communicated. This suggests that either messages are not getting through or that the available support is not necessarily meeting some of those students’ needs.

How far would you agree with these statements about how you feel when at university? (% strongly or mostly agree)

One key exception to the trend is where we asked about feeling excluded from the university because of financial circumstances, where the difference between comparator groups is much starker – 33.9 per cent of students who said they struggled to meet basic living costs agreed with this statement, compared to 11.4 per cent of students who said they could meet basic living costs.

Social community wise I feel safe here as I have not been subjected to any kind of racial comments or raging. But the money has been [an] issue from the start of the course and it still is, the price of rent and daily groceries are increasing day by day.

Is going to university still the right choice?

The last question of the survey asked whether respondents still felt that university was the right choice for them, and asked them to explain their answer. Encouragingly the vast majority of respondents – 79.6 per cent – said yes. But students who were struggling with basic living costs were less likely to agree – 74.1 per cent said yes, compared to 84.1 per cent of those who said they could meet basic living costs.

Chart: Do you still feel that university is the right choice for you?

Qualitative comments suggested that the calculation of whether university is the right choice is, in the broadest sense, about return on investment, not the experience itself. A large proportion of comments focused on the perceived pay off of a desirable or well-paid job after graduation – in some cases the challenges respondents were experiencing at university were presented as the struggle for which the graduate job would be a reward.

I am lucky because I switched course and I am now in a good position with a job for when I graduate, but if I was not I think I would be worried that I’d spent too much money for nothing.

I think obtaining a degree is becoming more necessary to get a job, so having one would be better for later life job circumstances and overall financial stability.

For some this is explicitly about the graduate job but others characterised university as a staging post in their development of independence and a way of making friendships rather than a means to a specific job:

Without a shadow of a doubt, the personal experiences and friendships I have gained from university and the past 2 years that I have been here have positively changed my life in relation to the previous years in high school and sixth form. Although I do not intend to use my degree, this was the only way I could get sufficient ‘life experience’ to have the confidence to do what I want to do next in my life.

Even if I cannot get a job in my field it has given me confidence in other aspects of life. Socially and to know that I can live alone fine.

Sometimes the prospect of future employment was cited alongside the positives of the experience:

I can only get the employment I am interested in through university. It’s also a good place for me to learn independence and make friends. The prices can be difficult, but I am lucky to have extra support from my family.

For others, job prospects being uncertain seems to be adding to nagging doubt about whether university was the right choice:

Mixed emotions. It isn’t the wrong choice, I know that. I wish my job prospects were better though […] Also I am facing a lot of financial issues as a result of being a uni student, and I’m leaving uni with a lot of overdraft to pay back. I just feel terrible about the future now to be honest.

The tension respondents express between characterising university as a means to the end of a graduate job and the broader view of university as one experience of many in a lifetime of development and growth throws the abstract debate about the value and purpose of a degree into sharp relief.

Those tempted to criticise students’ focus on securing a good job as “instrumentalism” may not be giving sufficient attention to the sacrifices students are making in hopes of improving their life chances. Indeed, in this context the notion of attending university for learning, growth and friendships seems positively luxurious. Yet this focus on outcomes potentially raises the stakes possibly beyond what is healthy for those students – if they see not securing a graduate job as failure either of themselves or of their university experience.

We think these findings may have special relevance to careers advisors, personal (academic) tutors and student support professionals. In a context where university funds are constrained there is a limit to the financial support that can be made available to struggling students. However, there are many other ways to support, including consideration of how students that are struggling financially can build friendships, grow in confidence and independence, and develop the skills and connections to secure a graduate job. Efforts to help students feel that their struggles are recognised and accommodated will go a long way to making them feel that these challenges are worth overcoming and it will be worth it.

This article is published in association with Pearson. You can download the graphs and demographic information from our survey here.

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