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  • Examining a Financial Climate of Support: How Institutional-Level Financial Aid Relates to Teamwork, Leadership, and Critical Thinking
  • Julie J. Park (bio), Nida Denson (bio), and Matthew Johnson (bio)

Numerous studies examine the role of financial aid in undergraduate education (e.g., Cabrera, Nora, & Castaneda, 1992; Cellini, 2008; DesJardins, Ahlburg, & McCall, 2002; Dynarski, 2003; Nora, Barlow, & Crisp, 2006; St. John & Noell, 1989). The majority of these studies focus on how financial aid affects the outcomes of enrollment, graduation, persistence, and retention. While these outcomes are absolutely critical and worthy of close examination, surprisingly little research examines how financial aid affects student growth and learning during the college years. This omission may be because financial aid primarily exists to aid enrollment and retention; however, understanding other potential benefits of financial aid may create a better overall understanding of how financial aid facilitates retention, graduation, and other student outcomes. With this study we seek to fill this gap in the research by examining whether a relationship exists between institutional-level financial aid and three outcomes that are key components of students’ experiences and development: teamwork, leadership, and critical thinking.

Studying the relationship between financial aid and these outcomes is crucial, timely, and of national importance. Teamwork, leadership, and critical thinking all align with higher education’s goals of preparing students to join the 21st-century workforce and citizenry (Dey & Associates, 2009). In order to support the diversity of the college-going population, those working in higher education and student affairs are in critical need of research that illuminates how institutional learning environments can equip students to succeed in an increasingly diverse and complex society; however, little is known about whether financial aid as an institutional-level variable contributes to student outcomes besides traditional measures of student success such as graduation rates. This study adds to the knowledge base in this area by investigating whether institutional-level financial aid is significantly related to outcomes that prepare students for engaging in a diverse democracy. Thus, we extend the financial aid literature beyond examining whether such aid is pertinent to student entry or departure, and into the realm of how financial aid may be related to actual student experiences and growth during the college years.


Research on Financial Aid and Student Outcomes

Financial aid plays a critical role in college access and student success. It plays an increasingly important role as the college-going population continues to diversify and the cost of college continues to rise at both public and private institutions. The majority of [End Page 779] studies examining financial aid investigate its influence on traditional measures of student success such as enrollment, graduation, and persistence (e.g., Cabrera et al., 1992; Cellini, 2008; DesJardins et al., 2002; Dynarski, 2003; Nora et al., 2006; St. John & Noell, 1989). In their extensive review of financial aid studies, Goldrick-Rab, Harris, Benson, & Kelchen (2009) note that the most work has been done linking financial aid to college enrollment. They observe that extensive evidence exists to support the notion that greater amounts of aid lead to increases in enrollment and completion. Beyond outcomes related to enrollment and completion, A.W. Astin (1993) found several other outcomes positively correlated with receiving financial aid, including satisfaction with faculty, satisfaction with the curriculum and instruction, and students’ perception that their faculty were student-oriented. As Pascarella and Terenizini (2005) note, Astin’s findings raise the possibility that financial aid may exert an effect on outcomes like retention and graduation by way of financial aid’s effect on intermediary outcomes such as student satisfaction with faculty. Still, research on financial aid that focuses on outcomes outside of enrollment, persistence, retention, and graduation is rare.

Research on Teamwork, Leadership, and Critical Thinking

Surprisingly, the question of whether there are educational benefits related to student development associated with financial aid has not been tested. Due to the psychological grounding of much of the student development literature, many studies link growth and development to the individual involvement, investment, or integration of the student into the college environment (Bensimon, 2007), and there has been less emphasis on the effect of institutional-level environments. As we will show, studies on student development outcomes such as...


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