Micro-Grants are Helping Students Across the Finish Line

Monday, June 17, 2019
Annie Phillips

As a program director at City University of New York, LaGuardia Community College, I shared an office with the College’s Emergency Fund administrator. The Fund, which provides grants to students to cover small expenses such as textbooks, transportation or other unexpected emergencies, was the reason our office was always full of students. These micro-grants were in high demand.

But it’s no wonder why. College life is riddled with unexpected expenses. That class trip to the museum? $15. The online subscription to complete homework? $80. Those paintbrushes for art class? $25. Not to mention the exorbitant costs of textbooks that leave many students no choice but to either make illegal copies of a friend’s book or set up a permanent home in the campus library. And for the 36% of university students who are food or housing insecure, these expenses could mean the difference between successfully finishing a class or dropping out of college altogether.

To combat this, many 2- and 4-year institutions offer emergency aid programs similar to LaGuardia’s. California Polytechnic State University, for example, has Cal Poly Cares, which offers emergency funding to students to cover the cost of housing, meals, academic supplies, professional clothing, and unplanned emergencies. 76 percent of senior grantees in 2017 went on to graduate that same year. A similar program at Georgia State University, the Panther Retention Grants, specifically targets aid towards students on the drop list with unmet need and modest tuition balances who are otherwise on track for graduation. Since the start of the program, more than 86 percent of the 12,000 grant recipients have graduated, most within two semesters.

“So… what’s the catch,” was the question most students coming through our office asked upon hearing that their application had been granted. The response? None—only a recommendation they thank the donor who made their grant possible. That’s because the vast majority of funding for emergency aid programs comes from institutional foundations or private donors. A 2016 NASPA report found that, at public 2-year institutions, about 51% of emergency loan funding comes from private sources and only 12% is sourced from the college’s operating budget. This is true across all forms of emergency aid including food pantries, restricted and unrestricted grants, emergency loans, and completion scholarships. This would be fine if private donations met demand, but nearly two-thirds of campuses that offer emergency aid programs report that they lack sufficient resources to meet the needs of all students who apply for grants.

In North Carolina, the state has stepped up to begin to fill the gap. The state’s Finish Line Grants program leverages about $7 million in public funding through WIOA to provide emergency aid to students. The program encourages community colleges and workforce development boards in North Carolina to work together to assess and provide grants of about $1,000 to students to cover child care, medical costs, car repairs, and other unexpected expenses. It works in addition to many other mostly privately-funded emergency aid programs that exist at the institutional level such as food pantries and emergency loan services.

I first learned about North Carolina’s Finish Line Grants through ESG’s work assisting the myFutureNC Commission in the creation of a statewide postsecondary attainment goal and broad-based agenda for educational attainment in North Carolina. When the myFutureNC Commission publicly announced their goal—2 million by 2030—last February, the Governor pointed to the Finish Line Grants as one strategy to equip more North Carolinians with the credentials they need to thrive.

While increasing emergency aid funds alone are not going to graduate the number of students states need to meet aggressive postsecondary attainment goals, it could, with the right use of data, make a significant difference in the lives of students who need it the most. North Carolina’s example offers a creative state-level approach to leverage public funds as a means to bring emergency aid offerings to scale across the state. Having had a front row (or desk) seat to the breadth and depth of student demand for emergency aid, I believe injections of public funding like North Carolina’s are desperately needed to ensure minor expenses don’t derail students, particularly low-income students and students of color, on the path to a postsecondary credential.