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Supporting Students Through Emergency Grants

Avatar By Matt Konrad

Updated June 2020

With the American economy, public health and higher education systems all facing months of uncertainty, it’s a particularly hard time to be a college student. Changing circumstances at home, work and school are creating new challenges — and those challenges frequently come in the form of  unexpected financial setbacks. Emergency grants can help to fill the monetary gap for students.

For millions of students whose studies are hampered or interrupted for financial reasons, there’s an important role for us all to play to keep them from dropping out.

Now, more than ever, students who juggle work and school – 70% of full-time college students, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce – are under pressure. They need to work more hours to afford school, but they also need study and class time to maintain their academic standing. Losing that balance is especially tough on community college students: only 35% of full-time community college students have completed their degree after five years.

One financial crisis can make or break a student’s ability to keep attending classes. A car stops working, a medical scare happens or a utility bill increases – these unexpected costs can be the last straw for a struggling student. Before COVID-19, more than a third of college students reported housing and/or food insecurity — and that number is likely to go up significantly as campuses remain closed or reduce services.

Fortunately, there are a number of organizations and institutions tackling college affordability and rallying around students in need, aiming to reach them before they drop out and don’t return.

Scholarship America has been part of these efforts for 15 years, partnering with institutions to deliver efficient, effective emergency grants.  The average Scholarship America emergency grant amount of $741 may not seem like a life-changing dollar amount—but emergency grant recipients are three times more likely to stay in school due to this financial assistance. After a financial emergency, being provided easy-to-access assistance at the right time relieves stress for working students.

These emergency grants are a catalyst for completion, especially for at-risk students. 95% of Scholarship America emergency grant recipients complete the term they are enrolled in and 88% enroll the next term.

At the beginning of 2020, we partnered with Achieve Atlanta to pilot a community-focused emergency grant program. Our initial launch awarded 23 students with almost $10,000 in emergency grants.

When COVID-19 struck, the program suddenly had to grow. With campus closures across the country, students were forced back home; many lost their jobs. The urgent needs of Achieve Atlanta Scholars were growing and changing daily; Achieve Atlanta immediately responded by making emergency funds available to a larger group of students and securing additional funding, to increase the available funds from $25,000 to $170,000. Through our efficient distribution system, students are getting the funds they need when they need them, giving them one less thing to worry about.

Companies are taking part, too. Wells Fargo and Scholarship America partner together to provide the Wells Fargo Veterans Emergency Grant Program. Helping  veterans already enrolled in college or vocational school who encounter undue financial hardship by providing up to $1,000 one-time grants. Private education assistance programs like these reflect the increasing importance for all supporters to provide more comprehensive programs that address student access and success.

On a policy level, the CARES Act has expanded the national focus on emergency grants. The omnibus coronavirus relief bill allows colleges to use existing Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) funds to provide emergency aid to students impacted by COVID-19, and also requires that schools use at least half of their CARES Act support funds for emergency grants related to the pandemic.

In addition, state governments are recognizing the need to expand emergency grants. In California, Scholarship America was a proud supporter of legislation expanding funding and access to emergency grants for community college students, and we are at the forefront of policy efforts to do even more.

In the wake of COVID-19, it’s more clear than ever that supporting students who most need help is an all-in process. Continued emergency grant research, funding and implementation will become an even bigger part of making college success happen – reaping benefits for students, their families and our future workforce.

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