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Research in Higher Education

, Volume 59, Issue 3, pp 302–324 | Cite as

Costs on the Mind: The Influence of the Financial Burden of College on Academic Performance and Cognitive Functioning

  • Mesmin Destin
  • Ryan C. Svoboda
Article

Abstract

The current studies test the hypothesis that the financial burden of college can initiate a psychological process that has a negative influence on academic performance for students at selective colleges and universities. Prior studies linking high college costs and student loans to academic outcomes have not been grounded within relevant social psychological theory regarding how and when the financial burden of college can influence students’ psychological and cognitive processes. We test the hypothesis that the salient financial burden of college impairs students’ cognitive functioning, especially when it creates an identity conflict or perceived barrier to reaching a student’s desired financially successful future. First, we use longitudinal data from 28 selective colleges and universities to establish that students who accumulate student loan debt within these contexts are less likely to graduate from college because student loan debt predicts a decline in grades over time, even when controlling for factors related to socioeconomic status and prior achievement. Then, in an experiment, we advance research in this area with a direct, causal test of the proposed psychological process. An experimental manipulation that brings high college costs to mind impairs students’ cognitive functioning, but only when those thoughts create an identity conflict or a perceived barrier to reaching a student’s desired financially successful future.

Keywords

Higher education Debt Identity Cognition Academic achievement 

Notes

Acknowledgements

The authors thank Claudia M. Haase, Simone Ispa-Landa, Terri J. Sabol, and Heather Schoenfeld for their helpful comments.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychology, School of Education & Social Policy, Institute for Policy ResearchNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA
  2. 2.School of Education & Social PolicyNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA

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