The rise of student emergency funds

Car repairs, childcare and even groceries can force many community college students to put their education on hold for financial reasons. The coronavirus has exacerbated those concerns, which is prompting a growing number of community colleges to start emergency funds to help students with unexpected financial hurdles.

Many two-year colleges have over the past few years already created such funds, which can help qualifying students pay for food, housing, transportation and more with a one-time grant, but financial problems caused by the pandemic has increased the number of two- and four-year institutions either creating such helping-hand efforts or expanding them. 

From Connecticut to California, community colleges are asking for donations to help students with basic needs as well to help provide laptops and internet connections to students who need them to take classes remotely. In many instances, colleges’ foundations have stepped up and re-allocated resources to help students most affected by the pandemic. Some are providing modest amounts, others a lot. 

Using past experiences

In Texas, the San Jacinto College Foundation last week approved $200,000 in emergency funding to assist students in need during the ongoing health crisis.

“We know that circumstances have changed for many of our students as a result of the COVID-19 situation, and we wanted a way to be able to help these individuals,” said Tom Watson, chair of the foundation’s board. “We want our students to be able to complete their certificate or degree this semester without the worry of added expenses.”

The foundation will provide up to $250 to eligible student applicants. The college expects up to 800 students will apply.

The foundation is directing unrestricted funding to assist with this need, according to Ruth Keenan, the foundation’s executive director. In April, it plans to launch a campaign with contributions from employees that will support the student emergency funding. 

“We know that our students have needs, and we want to use every avenue possible to get them the assistance they need to stay in school during this unprecedented time,” she said.

The college used its experience in creating an emergency relief fund following Hurricane Harvey in 2017 to get the new campaign up and running quickly, she said.

A helping hand and kind heart

In Massachusetts, Holyoke Community College (HCC) President Christina Royal has issued a personal $10,000 challenge gift toward a new HCC campaign to not only raise money for students in need but also to encourage the college community to support each other, especially during the current health crisis.

As part of the “Together HCC – A Campaign for Caring,” students, staff, faculty, alumni, relatives and friends are asked to use the hashtag #TogetherHCC to share stories and images on social media that show the strength of the college community in response to the crisis.

The goal is to gather 1,000 contributions of any kind toward the #TogetherHCC campaign, according to the college. That includes money but also posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as emails with an inspirational tale or messages of encouragement relating to the ongoing pandemic. 

“#TogetherHCC enables us to come together during a time like no other. Lift each other up. Offer encouragement. Share kindness. Give hope. And provide support that will change our students’ lives,” according to the campaign’s webpage.

“This is an unprecedented time in our history that can only be navigated if we work together,” Royal said in a press release. “Our campaign for caring enables members of our community to offer encouragement to one another and provide inspiration. The financial investments and kind words offered through this campaign are vitally important to our students’ success and to the well-being of every member of our community.”

The campaign complements other efforts at the college to help students, including scholarships, a student emergency fund and a food pantry.

Salary advances

Some colleges are also mindful that their employees need help, too. Mercer County Community College (MCCC) in New Jersey recently announced new initiatives to provide critical assistance to members of the college community in a time of need.

Among those efforts is providing an advance to certain employees during the health crisis. MCCC will help full-time employees who have an annual base salary less than $60,000. The college will offer a $1,000 salary advance, with six months to repay the college through payroll deductions, beginning in May.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.