Too Stressed to Persist to Graduation: Accessing Financial Aid at a Historically Black University in Texas

Tammy D. Lane

Prairie View A&M University


Inadequate financial aid adversely affects students persistence through college graduation. This qualitative study at a Historically Black University in the Southwestern region employed purposive sampling to examine 10 former students perception of financial aid accessibility and its impact on their non-persistence status. Barriers impeding financial aid accessibility and persistence to graduation are shared.  Data collection consisted of recorded responses from open-end questions. A thorough analysis of participant interviews and findings confirmed the existence of barriers obstructing financial aid accessibility and contribute to the phenomena of non-persistence.  The emergent themes significantly contribute to research that informs higher education practitioners and policy makers. In particular, this study serves as a stimulus for dialogue about the need to implement systems and strategies that ensure financial aid support to persistence through graduation at historically Black colleges and universities.

            Keywords: financial aid packages, non-persistence, barriers, need-based and merit-based financial aid, loan debt, allocation formulas, HBCUs, PWIs




Billions of dollars are distributed to students from various sources to assist with paying for college; nevertheless, each year many students still lack suitable financial aid to pay for college, which negatively affects persistence through college graduation (Baum, Elliott, & Ma, 2014; Goldrick-Rab, Harris, Kelchen, & Benson, 2013). The amount of student financial aid distributed during 2013-2014 was $238.3 billon (Baum et al., 2014). While this is a generous amount of money, it is not equivalent to the rise in college cost and rarely guarantees affordability for students to complete college (Kirp, 2003).  In 2013-14, the average tuition at a four-year public college or university for a full-time undergraduate living on campus was $22,190 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015).  The average out of pocket cost, with the options of loans, minus Title IV funding (grants and scholarships), was $12,890 (NCES, 2015). Although student financial aid supports college access, financial aid barriers such as the lack of availability of need-based and merit-based aid, imbalanced need-based allocation formulas, large percentages of shared cost, and student loan debt still exist and often determine students persistence to graduation (Alon, 2011; Chen, & Desjardins, 2010; Kane, 2006; Knapp & Seaks, 1992). The State Higher Education Finance 2014 fiscal year report indicated that the national average of college tuition counting as higher education revenue was 47.1 %, which doubled in the last five years (State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, 2014). Higher education net tuition as a revenue share is significant when considering the number of students relying on meager financial aid and the large percentage of shared cost to students and their parents.  

            This study sought to examine a problem in the intersectionality of persistence and student financial aid support in a historically Black university setting. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2015), the number of full- time undergraduate students attending public or private higher education institutions, receiving some form of financial aid, increased 36% between 2007 and 2013.  Furthermore, in a 2013 report, the national average of HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) students receiving financial aid was 77% (NCES, 2015). Consequently, receipt of financial aid affects HBCU students persistence to graduation. In 2013 over seventeen million students enrolled in an American college or university (2.5% African American and 2.9% Hispanic) and of those students enrolled only 59% will graduate within six years (NCES, 2015). Moreover, the average graduation rate for HBCU students is 33% (Johnson, Burch, & Gills, 2015; Journal of Black Higher Education, 2014).  Several reports state that students point to financial pressures as the number one reason they leave college (Chiang, 2007; Johnson et al., 2009).  In relation to receiving suitable financial assistance, other studies have shown that students experience stress, which reiterates the link to non-persistence behavior (Archuleta, Dale & Spann, 2013; Peters et al., 2011; Va'zquez, Otero & Diaz, 2012). 


Non-Persistence and Financial Aid

            There is extensive theoretical and empirical literature on issues of non-persistence (DesJardins, Ahlburg & McCall, 2002; Bean 1980; Kahn, & Nauta, 2001; St. John, Shouping, & Weber, 2001; Tinto, 1975). However, within the body of literature, little attention has been given to the experience of historically Black colleges and universities, inadequate student financial aid and non-persistence simultaneously. Most research focuses on non-persistence of minority students in predominantly White institutions (PWIs). It is important for stakeholders to understand what compels students to abandon college in different institutional settings. Stratton, OToole, and Wetzel (2008) utilized longitudinal data sets and a multinomial logit specification model to establish non-persistence behavior among minority students attending a predominantly White institution. Their findings indicated that the level and type of financial aid students received had an impact on the students departure from college (Stratton et al., 2008).  For example, findings indicated that students receiving student loans compared to those receiving work-study showed higher rates (2.3% versus 1.1%) of non-persistence (Stratton et al., 2008).        Furthermore, research shows that the phenomenon of non-persistence in various American institutions of higher education is a concern to policymakers and economists (Toutkoushian & Shafiq, 2010; Vossensteyn, 2004). Their concerns are valid because low rates of higher educational attainment among various racial and ethnic communities affect equity and potential earnings opportunities for numerous populations in the United States (Toutkoushian & Shafiq, 2010; Vossensteyn, 2004). Likewise, high attrition rates directly affect the United States competitive edge in the global economy (Vossensteyn, 2004).

            The approach used in this study provides a more accurate picture of college persistence in relation to financial aid and will better predict non-persistence behavior. This present study is significant because the analysis supports education practitioners and policy makers with identifying vulnerable populations and designing intervention programs to ensure persistence to graduation. This study generates dialogue about the mis-education of receiving student financial aid. Researchers found a deficiency in the accuracy of information that students and their parents possess regarding the extent of college costs that financial aid will cover Huelsman & Engle, 2013; Ikenberry & Hartle, 1998). Students and their families, when entering college, perceive that financial aid packages such as scholarships, grants, loans, and work study funding pay one hundred percent of college cost (Case, 2013). In fact, a combination of these financial aid resources often fall short of paying an ample portion of college, leaving students who cannot afford the additional out-of-pocket cost to drop out (Case, 2013).

            The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine, from the study participants perspective, financial aid barriers and their relevance to persistence towards graduation at a HBCU. The researcher sought to provide a more realistic description of non-persistence from the students point of view. The findings in this present study support the problem of non-persistence in a HBCU community as it is often hampered due to barriers receiving adequate financial aid. To determine the common themes, phenomena, and lived experiences of individuals at a HBCU, this phenomenological study focused on answering the following research questions: What are the experiences of HBCU students when engaged in the financial aid process?  What are the major perceptual barriers to accessing financial aid at HBCUs?  Does the application of various forms of financial aid affect a students decisions to persist to graduation?  Are students most likely to earn a college degree if they receive free tuition, grants, or scholarships at least during the first couple of years of college?


Literature Review

            Several research studies were used to examine the equitability of financial aid and its relevance to completing college.  Overwhelmingly, study findings indicated that existence or non-existence of financial aid barriers played a vital role in persistence towards graduation. Chen and Desjardins (2010) utilized longitudinal datasets from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Survey (BPS: 96/01) and the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study to examine the cause and effect of various forms of financial aid.  Findings indicated that when sizable amounts of Pell Grant, merit- and need-based aid were awarded to students, persistence increased (Chen & Desjardins, 2010). Likewise, when students were awarded need-based loans (subsidized) that the government paid the interest while in school, as opposed to unsubsidized loans, stop out and dropout behaviors decreased (Chen & Desjardins, 2010).

            Kane's (2006) study supports the notion that policies play a vital role in removing barriers and promoting perseverance to completion. His study examined and validated the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program (DC-TAG), which eliminated out-of-state fees, allowing students to attend the HBCU of their choice. Benefits of the program made financial aid awards sufficient to cover costs, and the program policies encouraged high entry into college, retention and persistence (Kane, 2006).  In Breiers (2010) mixed methods study, theorist Vincent Tintos longitudinal model of student dropout was drawn upon to analyze the data and to visually show that there is a correlation between dropout behavior and external factors (Breier, 2010). The study indicated that college dropout was probable due to underestimating the cost coupled with inadequate financial assistance, and late timing of when financial was applied to students accounts. Breier (2010) suggested that although past research cited various reasons for low retention and graduation rates universities, minimal focus was placed on finances and their correlation to non-persistence behaviors.


Imbalanced Allocation of Need-based Aid

            Federal and institutional methodologies are employed to determine a students need for various types of financial aid assistance. Studies demonstrate how imbalanced, need-based allocation formulas rendering need-based aid to higher-SES (socioeconomic status) students as well as low-SES students, lead to further disparity, impacting college persistence and degree attainment (Alon, 2011). Alon found while disadvantaged students benefited from Pell Grants, both low-SES and well-off students were able to receive institutional and state grants. Alon concluded that institutional and state grant calculation formulas must be strengthened so that aid is reallocated to low-SES students, which will increase persistence at least during the first year of college.


Increased Cost-Share and Student Loan Debt

            Vossensteyn (2004) wrote that, as a result of global economic fiscal stress, policies are created to increase efficiency in higher education (p. 39). This equates to state budget cuts that limit public funds.  A move of financial obligation from governmental resources to the student and their family decreases cost to institutions, which creates a financial barrier because of the large percentage of cost-sharing for the students and parents (Vossensteyn, 2004). To help cover the out-of-pocket cost, students and their parents are mounting huge amounts of student loan debt.  Although loans are made available to pay for college, many students are hesitant and debate whether to persist to graduation accruing debt with the possibility of not securing a job in the current economy or not earning enough to repay a substantial amount of loans (Razaki, Koprowski, & Lindberg, 2014). Moreover, some students consider quitting college or question if cost of a degree and the debt to attend college is worth obtaining a college degree (Abel & Deitz, 2014). In a study investigating probability of student loan default, historically, data show that often college graduates as well as non-graduates default on student loans because of income-debt ratios (Knapp & Seaks, 1992). Their findings favored public policies of penalizing institutions for high default rates instead of focusing on internal motivation to cause students to graduate and pay off their student loans (Knapp & Seaks, 1992).


Theoretical Framework

             This study drew from the Nora Student Engagement Model theoretical framework developed by Nora and Ramirez (2006.) as its theoretical lens. A major component of Noras Model, the pull factor, highlights environmental factors that have been shown to impact retention and persistence.  One of those environmental factors is the issue of adequate financial assistance.  Nora stated, not only is the amount of financial awarded important in students persistence, but also the more intangible aspects associated with financial aid are indirectly influential through the perception that the institution cares enough to invest in the student (Nora & Ramirez, 2006, p. 2). His research focuses on retention and persistence to graduation of students attending Hispanic Serving Institutions. Due to the similarity, I contend that this same model can be applied to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) serving students of color.



Phenomenological research was employed to outline the meanings and themes derived from the subjective reality of the participants, which was noteworthy in achieving in the study objectives (Creswell, 2013). In their own voices, the study participants intensely express the intricacy of receiving financial aid and how the dearth of funding and/or the category of aid related to their persistence decisions. A phenomenology approach was appropriate to discover the perceptiveness, profitability, and complexity inherent in the phenomenon (Marshall & Rossman, 2014; Schram, 2004). Moreover, the study design called for a comprehensive description to appreciate the experience of the marginalized participants (Marshall & Rossman, 2014). The topic of financial aid and college persistence was appropriate to this phenomenological study because higher education is fundamental to life experiences.  Also, utilizing a phenomenological approach to examine financial aid barriers and their relevance to persistence towards graduation at a historically Black university provided the investigator the opportunity to symbolically and literally place herself in the sphere of the participants.


            The participants in this phenomenological study were chosen because of their non-persistence status.  Upon receiving permission from the Institutional Research Department, the researcher used purposive sampling was used to select study subjects. The subjects consisted of ten former HBCU students between the ages of 18 and 25. The sample varied in gender, ethnic background, and socio-economic status. The subjects previously attended a HBCU in the Southwestern region with a population of 5185 students during the years of 2008-2014.


            Initially, the participants were contacted by email and given a brief description of the study. The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine, from the study participants perspective, financial aid access and its relevance to persistence to graduation at a HBCU. Based on their non-persistence status at their HBCU, they agreed and signed an informed consent form and chose a pseudonym prior to the interview. Each participant was informed of the interview process, and the measures taken to protect their privacy. Also, it was explained that the interview could be stopped at their discretion.

            Semi-structured, tape-recorded interviews utilizing 12 open-ended questions were employed, giving participants the freedom to regulate pacing and subject matter of the interview. Interview questions that guided the phenomenological inquiry can be found in Appendix A. Directive questioning was used when clarification of information was needed. Each participant was interviewed twice, once in person in a collegiate setting and once over the phone. Reflective notes were taken to describe thoughts performing research on the phenomena. The notes were used for additional data analysis.

Data Analysis

            A paid transcriptionist transcribed the interviews verbatim. The transcripts were reviewed and read several times and significant statements and phrases pertaining to the receipt of financial aid and non-persistence were extracted from each transcript. The researcher began the extensive analysis by reviewing prior, during, and post-data collection reflective notes that helped to recognize the thoughts, expectations, and rigid preconceptions, which permitted the emergence of the participants voices (Creswell, 2013). Bracketing was the next stage of the analysis, which was fundamental because the researchers responsibility in a qualitative approach is to construct an impartial study (Rossman & Rallis, 2003). Meanings derived from significant accounts and phrases were organized into themes, and these themes evolved into theme clusters, and eventually into theme categories. A color-coded system was used to identify and refine salient emerging themes. Emerging statements from participants that reverberated with the research questions and the phenomenon were noted. Sorting and interpreting significant quotes and then engendering the meaning of the quotes revealed the essence of the phenomenon. Analysis across participants identified incongruences associated with non-persistence behavior in relation to availability of financial aid, large percentages of share cost, allocation of need based aid, and fallacies of student loans. The researcher sought examples from the data to support thoughts before a thorough account of the lived experiences were framed and written.  Member checking was used to determine the accuracy of the findings. A preliminary report, highlighting specific descriptions and themes, was confirmed by participants to determine accuracy (Creswell, 2013). To establish credibility and trustworthiness of the data, triangulation of data was implemented with multiple interviews and member checks.



            The findings are presented with quotes from various participants. The emerging themes from interviews with 10 former students who did not persist to graduation at their HBU consisted of, inadequate financial aid to cover cost, an abundance of loan debt and scanty grant and scholarship awards, and transferal to a cost-effective school. In general, there were more critical than positive comments concerning the overall financial aid experience.


Inadequate Financial Aid, Loan Debt and Scanty Grants and Scholarships

            Consequently, all ten interviewees (Table 1) made claims that inadequate financial aid awards resulting in them having to part from their HBU. The participants expounded on the role financial aid played in their ability to access college and how an inadequate amount of aid eventually caused them to part from the university.


Table 1.


Overview of the 10 Interviewees






Texas Residence




Computer Science



































Sports Management





Liberal Arts





Chemical Engineering



Participant Six, an 18-year-old female, said,

I left CV because of the money. I got a Pell grant and a lot of loans and still didnt have enough, which is crazy. But um- I only got two scholarships prior to going to CV (mmhm), which were both from organizations I was um I was with during my high school career. I could never get any other grants and scholarships.


Participant Three, a 20-year-old female, further explained the frustration of inadequate funding and the departure from the HBCU:

They gave me a grant and loans and I feel like if it was mmhm I dont want to sound rude or harsh about it but (mmhm) I just felt like it should have been easier or more money available, (mmhm) for students who are willing to work hard. Whereas you have to bust your butt (mmhm) and like academically, and then you dont even get reward for it and then not go to your dream school, not because your grades arent well but because you cant afford it, (Mm) which isnt fair. And it hurts, because you know I had so much plan that I wanted to do there, to grow, like, I was thinking bout that last night. You know, I saw myself growing at CV spiritually, like you know, academically, socially and then having to stop, Im sorry Im getting teary-eyed, having to stop (mmhm) and to come home (Right) because you cant afford it, that really hurts.


Participant Four, a 23-year-old female, spoke about how not receiving adequate financial aid and owed to the University upon her departure, which has affected her ability to finish college.

Every year I was getting deeper in debt with loans and I still owe money. I think thats why I cant get my (Transcript) transcript. And thats why like Im in debt with CV (mmhm) like thousands of dollars. Cause youre out of state student so the uh out of state fees are high. Im almost done with my Bachelors But I have to pay off this $6/$7,000 just to get my transcript sent to a different school, and then I also have to think about paying for college back here.


Participant Eights, a 20-year-old female, experience was similar to Four,

I left a White school that I could afford to come to experience the tradition of a Black college. Um, I felt really let down, um, I felt like historically Black colleges were supposed to be there to help you know, Black students. I made a big mistake because I could not afford it, because they kept giving me loans and no other grant or scholarship money. They said my mother made too much money and that is crazy. She a nurse but, she have bills and other kids, and she dont get help from no one. I owe CV money because I couldnt pay my housing. I cant get my transcript to go to another school. I have a forbearance, but I owe $30,000 in loans to Sallie Mae. I have to start paying soon and my mom cant afford that and I cant go back to school.


Participant Five, a 20-year-old male, expressed concerns about suffering academically because of financial aid inefficiency,

It was long, so- tedious, I mean it just took forever to get our financial aid packet. Um, friends that I knew at other universities had already received their money or were able to buy books (Uhuh) and me and a few other students, who Im pretty sure a lot of other students at CV, had to go a couple of weeks without books because our financial aid packets werent done. I had to leave because I was getting behind at the beginning of every semester and because of the amount and the way they gave out financial aid. The financial aid office said they had to adhere to federal policies that didnt allow them to disburse money until a certain date. They first part of the money barely paid for my tuition. I had to wait for the second half to pay for housing, meals, and books. By then I was behind in my classes. And I dont know what happened, but my last semester I didnt have enough money and that really set my parents back.


Transferred to a Cost-Effective School

When asked Are you a first generation college student? If so, how did that impact your decision to drop out of college? eight of the 10 participants indicated that they had not dropped out. In fact, they said they stopped out with the intention of transferring to a cost-effective school or had already transferred to a cost-effective school.


Participant Two, a 19-year-old male, explained,

Uh, I was first generational. Yes, I was. But, I didnt dropout. Um I couldnt afford CV, so I transferred back here to my hometown, uh, Indiana. I had to wait two semesters. Now, I dont have to use loan money. I live at home and all have to use is Pell grant to pay for school. I have a part time job to pay for other things I need.


Participant Ten, a 21-year-old male, also an out-of-state student, transferred. He said,

Well it was really hard because um, um, neither of my parents went to college, both of them just graduated from high school, and uh, all throughout like my school years, elementary, middle school, high school, Ive always done really well in school (mmhm), um I was always focused on my education. And so being able to go to college and pursue the career path that I wanted to pursue was really important. I wanted to be able to take care of myself and my family, and also I have a younger brother (mmhm) so I wanted to um be a role model, an inspiration for him (Oh o-) and also I had a nephew at the time (mmhm) and I also wanted to stress the importance of uh, education- I had transferred to a community college in Arizona.


Participant Seven, a 25-year-old female, further explains the plan to transfer to a cost-effective school.

Uh, you know, just considering-Just being first-generation was, a true, I believe, a true blessing for me because none of my family is here, all of my family is in Central America (mmhm) and when I got the privilege to go to CV I was very excited for it but uh being that my financial needs and my familys financially were not so great, that was my decision not to go back to CV. And it just wasnt in my budget (Ok), thats what basically happened. I plan to go to HCC this summer.


Participant One, a 21-year-old male, expressed frustration over having to transfer to a community college.

Um Im still enrolled in college, I just had to leave CV because of my financial aid situation. Um they didnt give they didnt award me enough finances to be able to continue to go to the campus and then I, um (mmhm), so I was there from 2011 to 2012 and I enrolled in HCCC from 2012 to 2014 and then 2014 I tried to get back in and they still didnt give me enough financials to go back to school. If they wouldve gave me enough money, I wouldve been able to go back to school but obviously Im stuck at HCC right now.


Participant Nine, a 19-year-old female, claims to have left during the beginning of freshman semester based on availability of funding.

Yes I was the first to go to college. It honestly, it put a strain on my relationship with my parents in a way. (mmhm) Because um its not that I-I stopped going to school in general, its that I stopped going to CV, one of my dream schools, which hurt my family the most because my entire senior year I was built up to go and I was ready and then all of a sudden I couldnt go and then I think that hurt my mom more than it hurt me because seeing her daughter like hurting, feeling crushed, because something that she couldnt even afford, or even do hurt, hurt her.I didnt have to sit out for a semester but how things happened with CV, (Mmhm) I had to I literally dropped out of campus, cause a couple days before CV started,  which means I had to rush to get into um the a community college.



            The current study provided confirmation of financial aids direct effect on 10 students decisions not to persist towards graduation at their HBU. As mentioned, this study drew from the Nora Student Engagement Model theoretical framework (Nora & Ramirez, 2006) as its theoretical lens. A major component of Noras model, the pull factor, highlights environmental factors that have been shown to impact retention and persistence.   Noras model specifically notes that inadequate financial aid resources are pull factors. The findings in this investigation demonstrated that barriers to student financial exist, which resonates with Noras theoretical framework in that the barriers are environmental factors that specifically had an impact on the students non-persistence decisions. From their perspective, the participants described how the effect of inadequate financial aid to cover cost, an abundance of loan debt, and scanty grants and scholarship awards caused them to drop out of college or transfer to a cost-effective school.  This study demonstrated the need for further examination of federal and institutional funding allocation methodologies and student financial aid packaging philosophies.  The findings support previous suggestions from other studies that indicated that a lack of need-based aid and scholarships, and accumulating large amounts of student loan debt decrease persistence for economically needy students (Alon, 2011; Brier, 2010; Chen & Desjardins, 2010; Kane, 2006; Vossensteyn, 2004). Further studies are needed to investigate whether suitable allocation and dissemination of need-based financial aid to lower and middle socio-economic students will increase persistence. Furthermore, studies are needed to determine if zero cost-sharing from students and their parents serves a greater purpose than giving money to students who can financially afford to complete college. Any attempt to increase bachelors attainment is important to research and document. Any attempt to preserve the integrity of HBCUs and to promote the education of students of color is significant. Effective strategies must be multidimensional when providing access to financial aid and ensuring persistence to graduation.  This study intends to add to the body of literature by providing insight from the perspective of HBCU students whose college education was jeopardize due to barriers to financial aid access. One major limitation that could influence the outcome in this study is generalizability of the sample.  Due to size of the sample and because the sample was taken from one HBCU in the Southwestern region, the results may not reflect a trend at other HBCUs. Secondly, students are normally tracked from new entry up to six years. After the observation period, the student may return to college, becoming a stop out instead of a dropout, and may not give a clear depiction of the effects of financial access as a whole.



             The results in this study are consistent with the existing literature on barriers to accessing financial aid and its effect on persistence to graduation.  Noras (Nora & Ramirez, 2006) Model of Student Engagement Theory as a theoretical lens proliferates understanding how to manage external environmental pull factors that stifle persistence while raising the share of college-educated students of color in this country. This comprehensive study of former HBCU students experiences accessing financial aid and non-persistence to graduation has numerous benefits for higher education practitioners and policymakers. This study serves as a resource for HBCU leaders to address known barriers related to inequitable financial aid practices for students who rely on financial assistance to complete college. This study brings awareness to the importance of increasing need-based financial assistance, providing more institutional aid to supplement other forms of aid for first and second year students, and the fallacies of student loan dependency, debt, and the threat of default. This study is vital in assisting public policymakers with reconstruction of financial aid allocation formulas, constructing programs targeting lower socio-economic students, and advocating for less shared cost and increased access to various forms of financial aid opportunities. Through exposition of students lived experiences, researchers and practitioners will be able to construct knowledge, create intervention techniques and strategize, and implement programs that address non-persistence at HBCUs. Based on disproportionate educational opportunities for marginalized students, further studies are warranted to determine how HBCUs can reduce financial aid barriers and provide institutional funding opportunities to ensure collegiate participation and increase rates of persistence for disenfranchised students. Furthermore, the study justifies the need to further investigate mandating states to incorporate early financial aid education preparation programs for college in high school curriculum. It would be beneficial to design studies that quantify the success of HBCU students who have participated in such preparation programs.





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Appendix A


1. Are you a first generation college student? If so, how did this impact your decision to drop out of college?

2. Describe your college experience.

3. Why did you drop out of college?

4. What role did financial aid to play in your ability to access college?

5. What types of aid was offered to you and how adequate was it to pay for college?

6. Describe your contribution or your parents contribution to pay for college.

7.  How did you feel when you realize you would not have enough financial aid to cover 100% of your college cost?

8.  What was your experience with financial aid staff?

9. How do you feel about your HBCU?

10. Describe your ability to pay your student loan debt.

11. How to you feel about attaining a college degree?

12. How did your college experience effect your life at the time you were enrolled in college and how does what kind of effect does it have on your life today?




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