COLUMBUS, Ohio ― For college students who are poor, the margin between graduating and dropping out can be as slim as an unpaid utility bill or a busted transmission. Even if they have grants and loans to pay for most of their tuition and housing, any unexpected expense can kill the best-laid plans.
That’s where Heidi Anderson finds herself. The 47-year-old single mom of a teenager enrolled last summer at Columbus State Community College after being laid off from a bookkeeping job she’d had for four years.
“Money’s really, really tight,” Anderson said. “I’m at a point right now where if my car breaks down, I have to drop out of school. I don’t have the money to pay for it.”
At many institutions, that’s where student emergency funds come in. Often informally run and little known, they provide the $50 or $75 or $200 that can make all the difference to a student with little financial cushion for contingencies.
Columbus State is planning to create an emergency fund by next spring. “Even if students have financial aid, there are these unforeseen circumstances that just derail a student,” said Tari Blaney, director of the Student Advocacy Center at Columbus State.
Otterbein University has had an emergency loan fund for students for 40 years. It’s funded by alumni donations, and needy students can borrow up to $200 interest-free. It’s helped countless cash-strapped students over the years buy a needed book or otherwise get over a bump in the road, said Robert Gatti, vice president of student affairs.
Along with that fund, the Otterbein Women’s Club alumni group donates funds for Gatti to award grants of up to $1,000 to help students get through short-term crises. Last year, he said, one woman on the brink of graduation was behind in paying her tuition because of a medical debt. A grant helped her clear her unpaid balance and allowed her to graduate.
Otterbein added to its offerings for strapped students last year with the opening of Promise House, a drop-in center where anyone can study and use a computer, have a free snack and cup of coffee and visit a food pantry.
David Parkinson, an Otterbein senior who is volunteering at Promise House, knows the struggles of the students who’ve been stopping in since it opened in March. His parents in Oklahoma can’t afford to help much with school; a Pell grant pays for part and he’s “up to my neck in student loans.” He can’t afford to fly home in the summer and his campus jobs tend to dry up.
“Before Promise House opened, there was nothing on campus in the summer,” he said.
Colleges and universities that have emergency funds typically walk a fine line in advertising their existence.
“You don’t want to broadcast this service too much because you’ll be unable to fulfill all the demands,” said Dwayne Todd, vice president for student engagement and success at Ohio Wesleyan University, where an informal process makes small grants available to about 20 students a year.
At Ohio State University, an endowed fund created by a retired professor has grown from $25,000 15 years ago to about $70,000 today. The annual interest earnings, about $2,500 last year, provide emergency grants to about 25 students per year.
OSU’s Student Advocacy Center, which oversees the fund, tries to distinguish between true short-term emergencies and financial shortfalls that are part of a bigger underlying problem.
“We’re not doing something if we give someone $200 to pay a light bill and they’re not going to be able to pay their rent,” said Karen Kyle, director of the center. They refer those students to financial and budget counseling and help them apply for more financial aid.
The fund has helped with prescription co-pays and replaced books and other items for fire victims. As with other emergency funds, the focus is on helping students stay in school.
“The way we define ‘emergency’ is, is it something that’s going to create a barrier to their being successful academically? If so, we want to help,” Kyle said.