Emergency Student Aid Programs

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Mikhail Zinshteyn

By Mikhail Zinshteyn

February 25, 2019

A chipped tooth, a new pair of glasses, an urgent flight home – some colleges offer students money for emergencies on top of the financial aid they already receive. Knowing that emergency aid exists, and how to ask for it, can save students hundreds of dollars or more in unforeseen costs. It can also prevent students from dropping out of college because of a relatively small but unexpected bill.

Many students experience a lot of financial fragility, effectively living paycheck to paycheck. They are unable to handle unanticipated bills. This can force them to work longer hours, which takes time away from academics and can cause them to drop out of college.

What is an emergency student aid program?

An emergency student aid program is a small grant or short-term loan that colleges can give to cover surprise expenses that a student or family can’t afford.

How do I get emergency student aid?

Finding out whether a college offers emergency aid may require some work. According to a 2016 survey of more than 500 public and private colleges, just over 80 percent had been offering emergency aid of some kind for at least three years. But the survey found that students tend to learn about emergency aid through word of mouth. Colleges may also offer information on their websites or email students directly to notify them of the aid.

Almost every college has some kind of emergency aid, said Jill Desjean, a policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).

She said that students should start by visiting their college’s financial aid office. Some colleges offer the money after a short conversation with a student. Others require students to complete an application that’s then reviewed by a committee. “It can really vary from school to school,” she said.

Often, it’s the college that gives the aid, though some organizations can offer their own assistance, like the UNCF’s emergency grant program for students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).

How is the emergency aid given?

The delivery of emergency aid depends on the college. Campuses offer emergency aid as loans, vouchers to spend on school supplies, bus passes, grants for students who meet certain academic qualifications or as grants without conditions if the student need is high. Others offer in-kind support, like groceries through food banks or partnerships with nearby farmers markets. Loans are the most popular type of emergency aid, according to the 2016 survey. Grants that don’t come with academic restrictions are the second most popular.

“There isn’t one clear definition of what emergency aid is,” Desjean said. “It’s a judgment call.” Colleges will have policies and procedures in place for what they consider to be qualifying events.

What’s covered by emergency aid money?

The types of expenses covered by emergency aid funding vary by the college. Sometimes a student cannot pay for a utility bill. Other times it’s to repair a car or purchase a pair of eyeglasses for students. Colleges can offer emergency aid for needy students in the form of grant aid or vouchers to purchase textbooks or graphing calculators. A common theme among colleges that do offer the aid is to help students on shaky financial footing so that they don’t drop out.

“Granting $500 so that a student can pay their electricity bill while also imparting a sense of care can be an invaluable retention tool,” wrote Sara Goldrick-Rab, a scholar who studies the economic needs of low-income college students. In other cases, colleges offer grants to students who are short on tuition and fees but are likely to graduate or continue next semester.

How much is offered?

The amount varies by college and program. The 2016 survey defined emergency grants and loans as aid that’s less than $1,500, though a third of colleges offered emergency grants of $1,000 or more.

Community colleges in California can offer students up to $500 for textbooks, but sometimes with conditions, such as being enrolled full-time. Denison College offers as much as $300 to cover a range of emergency costs for students who need to fix a car battery or have emergency dental work. “A dead battery in a car that is needed to hold a part-time job off campus will require roadside service that must be paid—often in cash,” a donor to the college wrote in explaining why he established such a fund for student emergencies.

The UNCF emergency aid program has an average aid amount of nearly $2,000.

Why do colleges offer emergency aid?

The 2016 survey showed that colleges have several reasons to offer emergency aid. Most view the help as humanitarian work their students need. Others regard the aid as a way to keep more students enrolled by eliminating some of their financial barriers.

“Institutions are looking for ways to de-stigmatize asking for help. They really want students to identify themselves,” Desjean said. That’s because finding a way to meet a student’s emergency needs can be the difference between having them graduate or not. And that “can reflect poorly on schools, too.” When the students graduate, it makes “the college look good.”

Am I guaranteed to receive money for emergencies?

“Financial aid resources are limited,” Desjean said. “There may be a case where there’s no money available, unfortunately.” About a third of the colleges in the 2016 survey had emergency aid budgets of less than $10,000 for small grants and loans. But, she added, “it can never hurt to ask.”

A good place to start:

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