Education

COMMENTARY: Emergency support for college students is a matter of financial equity, and it’s everyone’s business

Credit: Julie Leopo/EdSource

California State University Northridge in Los Angeles.

Emergency fund assistance for students in our state budget, paired with recently approved federal relief, recognizes an important lesson from the pandemic: Flexible cash assistance works.

California offers relatively generous financial aid programs, but their application is limited, and too many of our students face serious financial strains outside of tuition that threaten to derail them. If deployed thoughtfully and equitably, flexible assistance can help students struggling financially to stay in school and earn degrees. It can change their odds and put California on a path to building a truly inclusive economy.

At the beginning of the pandemic, College Futures Foundation and Mission Asset Fund partnered and engaged with peer funders to launch the California College Student Emergency Support Fund. It provided $500 in unrestricted cash assistance to low-income, full-time students in the California Community Colleges, California State University or University of California systems.

The flood of responses — with over 65,000 students signing up to apply within the first 72 hours — highlighted the need. We heard from students who lost their jobs and were facing impossible choices—pay rent, buy food or stay in school?

The imperative was clear: Focus on those who could benefit most from cash grants—particularly those who lost income, were excluded from receiving stimulus checks and were responsible for supporting their family. In a post-grant survey, we found that 90% of students lost income, causing them to skip meals, postpone doctors’ appointments and miss paying bills on time, hurting their credit.

Said one grant recipient, who had to move back home to financially support her dad and brother, “When the lockdown ends, [I] will have little to no money left, and I am also at risk of losing my remaining two jobs. I have a lot to manage, and this is affecting my academics. I want to break the cycle of poverty through my schooling, but these adverse circumstances make this goal very difficult.”

In addition to providing practical assistance for an array of financial needs, flexible grants can offer powerful psychological support. It is challenging for students to work, parent, manage households, maintain their health and excel in coursework. Students we surveyed shared that financial pressures and insecurity profoundly impacted their confidence and mental health; when they struggled to meet financial obligations, they doubted their ability to earn their degrees.

We heard that our grants, while modestly sized, made a difference for students. Some were able to purchase tech supplies for distance learning, pay rent or medical bills or fix broken cars. We also heard that conveying a sense of respect when disbursing funds and in the way we asked questions about students’ situations had an impact beyond the dollars.

Students shared that, through the experience of receiving the grants, they felt that someone was listening and cared about their success.

Our fund experience also showed that the first-come-first-served approach of providing services too often employed by government and other aid programs does not change the odds; in fact, it reinforces inequity and diminishes hope. The applicants who can rarely be first in line are told once again that the world is against them.

So let’s change the odds. Let’s update our traditional perceptions of who students are, how their daily lives look and how best to offer assistance in times of need.

There is no time to waste. This spring and summer, many students are weighing tough choices and determining whether they can enroll in college or continue to pursue a degree. Steep enrollment declines tell a troubling story: For underrepresented students of color, low-income and first-generation students and those who are supporting family members, the pressures and demands are too great.

In directing its current and future resources, the state should prioritize flexible and holistic supports that fill in the gaps for these students and trust them to know which financial needs are most pressing for them.

Similarly, California’s higher education systems, philanthropies and corporations must recognize their shared stake and work together to develop better models for holistically and equitably supporting students in their pursuit of degrees so that they aren’t pushed off the path to long-term benefits by near-term costs and challenges.

The pandemic and recession laid bare and exacerbated existing inequity and racism. But this moment, coupled with a national racial reckoning, has also paved the way and built the public will for change. In order to recover as a state and build an inclusive economy, we must focus on better serving today’s diverse college students — who are tomorrow’s doctors, teachers and civic leaders.

•••

Monica Lozano is the president and CEO of College Futures Foundation. José A. Quiñonez is the founder and CEO of Mission Asset Fund.

EdSource receives funding from over a dozen foundations, including the College Futures Foundation. Editorial decisions and content remain under the sole control of EdSource.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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