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Montgomery College employees unload donated laptops for students.

Courtesy of Montgomery College

In early April, the Mission Asset Fund launched the California College Student Emergency Support Fund, which offered $2.3 million to low-income, undocumented or otherwise in-need California college students in the form of $500 grants.

“Within the first 10 minutes, the system crashed,” said Audrey Dow, senior vice president at the Campaign for College Opportunity, one of several organizations promoting the private fund. One thousand students applied in the first 90 minutes. A day later, Mission Asset Fund, a nonprofit organization, had put 65,000 students on a waitlist. (This paragraph has been updated to note the relationship of the Campaign for College Opportunity to the fund.)

The coronavirus pandemic has shed light on existing disparities in student wealth and security. Campus shutdowns sparked conversations about students’ housing security. As unemployment skyrockets, the number of food-insecure students grows. Online learning revealed that many students don’t have access to computers and reliable internet. Colleges are scrambling to meet the needs of their students remotely, and to do it fast.

But distributing aid dollars can be harder than it seems.

“The fact is, to give somebody emergency aid is actually pretty difficult,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education and sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia and founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, a research and advocacy organization that focuses on students' basic needs.

In the weeks following campus closures, an avalanche of student aid fund announcements piled up. Seemingly every college wanted to get something to their students -- a laptop, Wi-Fi, money for food and housing. That’s great, Goldrick-Rab said, but the success of such programs hinges on their ability to reach all students, process requests and administer aid quickly.

Outreach is critical. An email is not enough, Goldrick-Rab said. She highlighted the University of California, Berkeley, which immediately advertised its aid program on social media and its website. The university has turned more than $900,000 of private gifts and other funding into emergency grants to date, in addition to $9.6 million in funding from the federal stimulus package, the CARES Act.

The stimulus package allocated $14 billion for higher education, half of which was specifically routed to institutions so that they could provide emergency grants to students. Colleges and universities were tasked with deciding how to distribute the grants to students.

Applications for aid, while informative for colleges, are a hurdle to students seeking funding for immediate needs like food, housing and internet service.

“There’s so many bad applications out there that basically ask students to write essays about their poverty,” Goldrick-Rab said. “They basically make them perform their poverty, traumatizing them, or they ask them questions in a way that nobody who is seriously stressed out could answer.”

Keith Curry, president of Compton College in California, shares the frustration with applications. “We ask students over and over again, 'How poor are you' on every application,” he said.

When it comes to choosing which students will receive the limited aid funds, experts emphasized two things: prioritize and randomize. Prioritize the different needs students have, and then randomize the recipients within those groups.

“Randomizing is what the colleges are not doing. It’s awful, but it’s also a fact. It’s the only way to get the job done,” Goldrick-Rab said. “Let go of the idea that you’re going to make perfect decisions -- you’re not. There’s no such thing.”

For a while, Montgomery College was doing just that. The Maryland community college was processing aid requests without an application for whichever students requested aid.

"We were really trying hard to have it not be bureaucratic," said Joyce Matthews, vice president of development and alumni relations at the college and executive director of the Montgomery College Foundation. The goal was to evaluate need for individual cases. (This paragraph has been updated to clarify Matthews' statement.)

"But the numbers just grew too quickly,” Matthews said.

The college has since implemented a short application, which asks students what their areas of need are and to list someone in the college community, like a faculty member or employee, who can advocate for them.

"We knew we were going to have to use professional judgment" to determine whom to send aid to, Matthews said.

So far, Montgomery has distributed $625,000 in aid, apart from CARES Act dollars, averaging $529 per award.

Need has not slowed, Matthews said. Just last week, the college received 200 requests.

"We’re starting to see second requests," she said. "Certainly, the food-insecurity issue does not go away."

Some colleges are using existing financial need data to determine which students receive how much aid. Georgia State University, for example, uses existing estimated financial contribution data to determine the amount of the award, with the students with greatest need receiving the most in grants. The university has already administered CARES Act funds to 23,000 students, plus an additional 2,000 grants, totaling $800,000 from a combination of philanthropic gifts and CARES dollars.

But prior financial need data is outdated because many students’ financial situation has changed suddenly amid the pandemic.

Curry has laid out a swath of programs for his students at Compton College. He’s delivering meals and groceries to students through partnerships with Everytable and Grubhub. He’s also mailing laptops and mobile hotspots to students. This was before the college received its CARES Act dollars.

His biggest hurdle has been maintaining funding.

“I’m trying to scale up,” he said. “For example, our food program: I’m at 150 students, but I’m trying to increase that. But I need more money.”

Traditional college-aged students are not the only group affected by campus closures.

Gilbert Vasquez is 57 and works with formerly incarcerated students at East Los Angeles College, a community college. The shift to online learning has been difficult for his students. Many of them work part-time and are in their 40s and 50s. They didn’t grow up with technology the way many traditional college students have, and they are adapting to life as students after spending years in prison.

Vasquez is worried some of his students may drop out.

“It was going fantastic, it was going great,” he said. “And then COVID hit and just slammed the door on us.”

Vasquez is working to get laptops and mobile hotspots to students that need them, and to facilitate Zoom meetings and set students up with tutors.

He’s worried about his own education, too. Vasquez spent nine years in prison before pursuing a certificate in the addiction studies program at East Los Angeles College. He’s currently working on a bachelor’s degree in psychology and planning to graduate in 2021.

“But this right here sets everything back,” he said.

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