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An emergency grant helped Jacqueline Mathis (on campus with her son) stay enrolled at Mountain Empire Community College.
Jeremiah Rotich faced some tough economical challenges while attending Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) in Minnesota.
“It was a bit rough being a student and supporting a family,” says Rotich, who emigrated from Kenya in 2002.
At one point, his car broke down, and he had to use the rent money to fix it. He was worried about being able “to pursue my dreams” for an education, but MCTC provided a $500 emergency grant to help him stay on that track.
The recent MCTC graduate now hopes to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business administration and is already giving back: He serves on the board of the local school district’s foundation and is helping build a community center in his hometown in Kenya.
Jacqueline Mathis found herself in an economic bind after her family moved across the county and the job her husband was offered fell through.
“We had nothing,” she recalls, noting that she considered dropping out of the nursing program at Mountain Empire Community College (MECC) in Virginia.
But then MECC came through with a $500 emergency grant to help her pay for gas money for her 45-minute drive to class.
“If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school,” she says.Keeping the dreamThose stories illustrate the value of programs to help students stay in school when faced with urgent, unforeseen expenses. Both MCTC and MECC are part of Scholarship America’s Dreamkeepers program, but many other community colleges have set up their own emergency funds.
Since MECC joined Dreamkeepers in 2005, it has awarded 153 grants and 43 loans. This past academic year was the most active, with 24 grants and 22 loans awarded, says Donna Stanley, vice president of institutional advancement. The average grant has been for $355; the average loan, $451.
Most students requested money for car repairs or gas.
“Transportation is a real problem for students at rural colleges,” says Stanley, who adds that some students drive an hour to get to MECC.
MECC’s student services office relies on faculty and staff referrals to identify students in need. If the grant is approved, the MECC Foundation sends a check directly to the vendor within 24 hours.
“The challenge is whether to publicize it or not,” Stanley says. “We do make it visible, but we don’t want it to be seen as an entitlement or financial aid program.”
Tips to offering emergency grants
Scholarship America established Dreamkeepers in partnership with the Lumina Foundation in 2004 as a way to improve persistence and retention. Over the years, the Walmart Foundation and the Kresge Foundation provided additional support. The Dreamkeepers program offers an online application tool, fundraising support, data tracking and linkages to other resources to colleges in its network.
The most commonly requested expenses requested by students in Dreamkeepers colleges are for rent or housing, food, medical needs, utilities, bus passes/transportation and childcare, says Janine Fugate, vice president of marketing and communications for Scholarship America.
Currently, 32 colleges in 15 states are signed on to Dreamkeepers. The program got a boost last month when the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation (GLHEGC) launched a $1.9-million grant program in partnership with Dreamkeepers to provide emergency grants of up to $500 to students in all 16 institutions in the Wisconsin Technical College System. Each of those colleges will receive a three-year grant of $62,500 to $140,000, depending on enrollment.
“We know that any unexpected cost—whether it’s a bill for car repair, daycare or dental work—can loom large for disadvantaged students,” says GLHEGC President and CEO Richard George.
“What might be a bump in the road for many people would be a major obstacle for these students, and could cause them to drop out,” adds GLHEGC spokesperson Amy Kerwin.Tough choicesGreen River Community College (GRCC) in Washington state established its own emergency fund in 2009 to provide one-time grants of up to $500 to help students cover critical needs. The SAFE (Student Assistance for Emergencies) Fund is aimed at the student “who is trying to make a choice between paying a utility bill and dropping out, or staying in school and the family goes without power for a month,” says Josh Gerstman, development director at the GRCC Foundation.
The typical recipient is a single parent struggling to make ends meet.
“These aren’t students looking for a handout,” Gerstman says.
Students must be referred by a faculty or staff member, and the money is given directly to a utility company or other vendor, rather than to the student.
During the recent academic year, the average grant was $350, Gerstman says. Twelve grants were for utility payments, six were for rent or deposits, one was for a phone bill and one was to help pay for a dental procedure. All 20 grant recipients finished the quarter.
The SAFE Fund started with $10,000, with nearly three-quarters of the funding coming from employee contributions. The rest came from businesses and service clubs.Help for veteransGRCC also just launched a similar program for students who are veterans. The Veterans Educational Transition Fund will provide up to $500 to help students stay in school when they haven’t yet received their veterans benefits or don’t receive enough to cover all of their college costs.
Rio Hondo College (RHC) in California also provides financial help to veterans in similar situations.
“We recognize, like many colleges, how challenging the transition is for our students,” says Dyrell Foster, dean of student affairs. “Without this support, students were starting to walk away.”
Since the program started in 2010, RHCC has given about 50 interest-free, $300 loans to veterans. In May, the Vons Foundation contributed $10,000 to the RHC Foundation to expand the program.
If students fail to repay their loans within 60 days, they cannot register for the next term. Foster says 75 percent of the loans have been repaid.
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges