grant program

Best Practices From an Emergency-Assistance Grant Program

By Dennis Pierce

How college support plays a vital role in keeping students on track.

Emergency-assistance grants have helped students at 16 Wisconsin technical colleges stay in school and receive degrees or certificates — and the program’s funder credits strong institutional support as a key reason for its success.

In 2012, Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation awarded $1.5 million over three years to establish emergency grant programs at each of the 16 colleges of the Wisconsin Technical College System. The colleges used these funds, plus additional money of their own, to help low-income students at risk of dropping out because of financial emergencies.

During the grant period, nearly 2,700 students received emergency grants averaging $500, according to Great Lakes data. Without these grants — which helped with transportation, housing, medical and child-care costs, among other expenses — many of the students would have left college to focus on working to pay their bills.

Data reported by the colleges suggest the grants had their intended effect: 73 percent of students who received emergency grants stayed in college or graduated. By comparison, the National Center for Education Statistics reports a 59 percent retention rate for all students at public two-year institutions.

“There are so many students who overcome financial hurdles, social hurdles and personal hurdles to get to college, and maybe almost through college — and they can be thrown off track by something that is a relatively small amount of money,” says Amy Kerwin, vice president of community investments for Great Lakes.

“We think that’s a travesty, and if there’s an opportunity to help a student stay in college and complete their degree, we think that makes perfect sense — not only for the student but also for the institution, which has already invested a lot of time and resources in that student.”

Great Lakes just awarded a second round of emergency-assistance grants in December. Those grants, totaling an additional $1.5 million, went to 31 community and technical colleges across Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. And last month the organization issued a report highlighting best practices gleaned from its initial round of grants.

“Over the past three years, we learned many valuable lessons, but the No. 1 thing we learned is what it takes to make a successful program: creating institution-wide support,” the report stated. “Set the expectation across campus that the program is a priority, and mobilize a team that can work efficiently across department lines to provide assistance as quickly as possible, to keep a student enrolled.”

For instance, Great Lakes learned early on that coordination between student support services and the finance department was critical — yet often, “they’re in very separate silos,” Kerwin says.

If there is close coordination between the two departments, students can receive their emergency-assistance funds quickly enough to make a difference. “But if there wasn’t that smooth handoff, we were finding it was taking a long time to get checks cut,” she says. “And when that happened, the emergency wasn’t being handled in a timely enough manner, and we were seeing students leaving campus.”

Other advice included the following:

  • Actively promote the availability of emergency grants. Advertise the program where students will get the message, such as at orientation and through social media.
  • Train faculty on the program and its benefits. “Coach them to identify and refer students they believe are at risk of dropping out due to a financial emergency,” the report says.
  • Promote an affirming message to students. “Let them know it’s ‘OK’ to apply for an emergency grant, and train staff to be sensitive to students feeling self-conscious asking for help,” the report advises.
Dennis Pierce

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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