Community College Pilot Programs Administer Immediate Aid to Students With Financial Emergencies

For many community college students living on tight budgets, an increase in rent, car repair expenses, unanticipated textbook costs and even running out of bus fare to get to school can derail their college education. With the economy flailing, a new assessment of two pilot programs in which community colleges awarded aid for such emergencies provides tips for other colleges seeking to help retain students in financial straits. 

The study, “Helping Community College Students Cope with Financial Emergencies: Lessons from the Dreamkeepers and Angel Fund Emergency Financial Aid Programs,” by MDRC, an education and social policy research organization, evaluated two Lumina Foundation for Education-created programs that helped select community colleges create and administer three-year emergency aid pilot programs.

Eleven community colleges in Florida, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, selected because they serve large numbers of low-income and minority students, participated in the Dreamkeepers program, administered by Scholarship America. The colleges included Broward County and Santa Fe community colleges. Twenty-six tribal colleges and universities in 10 states participated in the Angel Fund, administered by the American Indian College Fund.

Together, the colleges awarded more than $845,000 in emergency financial aid to more than 2,400 students in the first two years of the program, providing awards ranging from $11 to $2,286 and in most cases within one to five business days. Aid for housing and transportation were most frequently requested. For tribal college students, who have to travel long distances to get to these mostly rural institutions, transportation represents a significant barrier to degree completion.

Half of all community college students drop out before receiving a credential, and unexpected financial emergencies have played a role. The study couldn’t quantify the impact of emergency aid on retention, but did note aid recipients tended to re-enroll in a subsequent term at a rate comparable to the average retention rate at those institutions.

 

“The reason we would view it as positive that they were re-enrolling at roughly the same rate is because they were presenting themselves as having emergencies such that they might otherwise be expected to drop out of school. The fact that they were doing at least as well as other students suggest the program did help them stay in school and continue with their studies,” says Tom Brock, who directs postsecondary research for MDRC.   

The study also found that women and African-Americans were more likely to receive aid at the Dreamkeepers schools, suggesting they have a disproportionate level of need and/or there’s a reluctance on the part of other groups to seek help. Dreamkeepers recipients tended to be older first-generation students enrolled in a vocational field of study. These nontraditional students were also parents who received other forms of financial aid.

The study findings suggest these students, who are more likely to be enrolled full time and attempt to complete more credits, may be more motivated to finish school. Many of the programs grant awards to only students who meet certain academic eligibility requirements.

A major challenge for colleges looking to establish their own emergency fund is deciding what constitutes an emergency, and administrators should devote adequate time to discuss this issue when designing their own program, says lead researcher Christian Geckeler. A student whose house burns down is obviously in crisis, but pilot colleges struggled over whether to come to the aid of students whose problems may be due to financial mismanagement. Some colleges required students take financial literacy classes and seek other support services as a condition of receiving their emergency award.

The pilot schools’ fears that there would be a run on the limited funds did not come to pass, and researchers recommend colleges widely advertise the services.

Researchers also found that the colleges didn’t have as many problems raising funds for the program as they anticipated. “People were willing to give money for this type of program possibly because it has much more of a direct tended to re-enroll in a subsequent term at a rate comparable to the average retention rate at those institutions.

 

“The reason we would view it as positive that they were re-enrolling at roughly the same rate is because they were presenting themselves as having emergencies such that they might otherwise be expected to drop out of school. The fact that they were doing at least as well as other students suggest the program did help them stay in school and continue with their studies,” says Tom Brock, who directs postsecondary research for MDRC.   

The study also found that women and African-Americans were more likely to receive aid at the Dreamkeepers schools, suggesting they have a disproportionate level of need and/or there’s a reluctance on the part of other groups to seek help. Dreamkeepers recipients tended to be older first-generation students enrolled in a vocational field of study. These nontraditional students were also parents who received other forms of financial aid.

The study findings suggest these students, who are more likely to be enrolled full time and attempt to complete more credits, may be more motivated to finish school. Many of the programs grant awards to only students who meet certain academic eligibility requirements.

A major challenge for colleges looking to establish their own emergency fund is deciding what constitutes an emergency, and administrators should devote adequate time to discuss this issue when designing their own program, says lead researcher Christian Geckeler. A student whose house burns down is obviously in crisis, but pilot colleges struggled over whether to come to the aid of students whose problems may be due to financial mismanagement. Some colleges required students take financial literacy classes and seek other support services as a condition of receiving their emergency award.

The pilot schools’ fears that there would be a run on the limited funds did not come to pass, and researchers recommend colleges widely advertise the services.

Researchers also found that the colleges didn’t have as many problems raising funds for the program as they anticipated. “People were willing to give money for this type of program possibly because it has much more of a direct connection to students than other programs do. They can see it’s small amounts of money and it’s the immediacy that helps the student … .There’s a personal element to it,” Geckeler says. 

Says Brock: “There certainly is a lot of concern that the traditional financial aid structure does not meet the need of nontraditional students. [An emergency aid program] is designed to be supplemental; it’s designed to provide quick assistance. It may not ever be realistic to think federal or state aid will have that type of responsiveness that quickly. It’s useful to have some supplementary sources like this that offer that flexibility.

“With the economic downturn ahead of us, it does underscore the importance of this kind of program. I would anticipate there will be greater demand at these institutions and others for emergency assistance.”

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