How Emergency Grants Help College Students Facing Homelessness and Hunger

How Emergency Grants Help College Students Facing Homelessness and Hunger

By Matt Konrad

Updated February 2024

The doors of higher education have never been open to more people. But it’s increasingly clear that many of those students are struggling to meet their own basic needs even as they work to change their lives with a degree or certificate.

As reported by the NSPA Programs Blog, the 2023 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study discovered that “22.6% of undergraduate students and 12.2% of graduate students are food insecure, and 8% of undergraduate students and 4.6% of graduate students experience homelessness. These rates were even higher at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), as well as for-profit institutions.” Inside Higher Ed also reported that both food and housing insecurity are greatest among Black and Hispanic students, students who are parents and those who received Pell Grants.

This was the first time NPSAS respondents had been asked about basic needs insecurity, and the findings corroborated the years of research into the issue done by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. The Hope Center’s annual #RealCollege Survey, focused largely on community colleges, found the same thing year after year, as reported via Inside Higher Ed: college students face higher rates of food and housing insecurity than the general population.

“The really big reason this is so important is these are experiences that are affecting millions of students and have been, I firmly believe, for the whole time,” Hope Center founder Sara Goldrick-Rab told IHE.

For students who are already in a precarious financial position, a single unexpected financial setback can be devastating. A sudden medical expense, rent increase or car repair can derail their path to a degree—and, once a student leaves school, getting back becomes exponentially more unlikely, no matter how much they might benefit in the long term.

So what can we do to help?

Expanding Access to Support Structures

With 70% of full-time college students juggling work and school, and college costs (including room and board) continuing to increase, the scramble to make ends meet often leaves students without the free time or energy to look for help. After a full-time work week and a full credit load of classes, fueled by little sleep and a fast-food diet, the complex realms of financial aid and student advising can seem inaccessible and overwhelming. If they do manage to seek help, many are shut out from financial aid due to bad credit or lack of a co-signer—making their attempts to break out of poverty via education that much more difficult.

In order to assist homeless and hungry students, it’s vital for campus, state and national programs to work on meeting them where they are, and provide aid when they need it most.

As Brookdale Community College’s Matt Reed put it in Inside Higher Ed, that’s often easier said than done: “Many of our basic operations are predicated on the assumptions that students are well-prepared, live at home with families that support them economically, have reliable cars, don’t work many hours for pay, know what they want, and can devote themselves full-time to their studies if they’d just buckle down. … But those aren’t most of our students. That doesn’t make our students defective. It means we need to be willing to rethink some of our basic assumptions.”

Fortunately, more and more colleges are doing the work to discover these gaps in students’ basic needs, and taking steps to meet them.

NSPA highlights a few of the “numerous community- and institution-based programs already in existence. These include businesses and nonprofits like Rent College Pads, which works with local landlords to list available housing options for students and Swipe Out Hunger, which allows students to donate food swipes at their dining hall and engages in national advocacy efforts focused on student hunger on campus.”

Programs like Single Stop, which currently operates at seven community colleges, offer another example of how support can work efficiently. Using a combination of online tools, organizational partnerships and in-person resources ranging from free meals to tax assistance, Single Stop provides “wrap-around” support tailored to the needs of each student.

And Single Stop isn’t the only model that provides these kind of wrap-around services. Many campuses have their own independent offices, and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) also provides help and resources for students, families and admissions officers. Whatever the platform, though, the idea remains the same: getting time- and money-crunched students the right support at the right time.

Providing an Emergency Grant Safety Net

In conjunction with these services to keep students learning, emergency grants from both colleges and private-sector funders can play a vital role.

The concept behind emergency grants is simple: when students incur an unexpected expense that threatens their ability to stay in school, they can apply for a small ($1,000 or less), one-time grant to help pay the bill and keep them afloat.

Over the last two decades, Scholarship America has partnered with colleges and private-sector funders to provide these kinds of grants. And while the average grant amount of $741 may not seem like a life-changing dollar amount, it can be a lifeline for those facing tough choices—95% of Scholarship America emergency grant recipients complete the term they are enrolled in and 88% enroll the next term.

Emergency grant programs have the benefit of flexibility in the face of crisis. At the beginning of 2020, we partnered with Achieve Atlanta to pilot a community-focused emergency grant program. Our initial launch awarded 23 students with almost $10,000 in emergency grants. But when COVID-19 struck, the program suddenly had to grow.

With campus closures across the country, students were forced back home; many lost their jobs. The urgent needs of Achieve Atlanta Scholars were growing and changing daily; Achieve Atlanta immediately responded by making emergency funds available to a larger group of students and securing additional funding, to increase the available funds from $25,000 to $170,000. Through our efficient distribution system, students are getting the funds they need when they need them, giving them one less thing to worry about.

Grants can also be targeted to those whose needs might be overlooked. For example, Scholarship America administers the Wells Fargo Veterans Emergency Grant Program, which provides one-time grants up to $1,000 for veterans in college or vocational school who encounter undue financial hardship.

Best Practices For Supporting Students in Need

Whether it’s wraparound support or emergency grants, there are a few guidelines to follow to ensure students are getting the most support with the least friction. Our work in the emergency aid sector has shown these best practices:

  • Eligibility guidelines should be clear, broad and easily accessed from any device, even by those with little experience in the financial aid system.
  • Funds should be used for non-recurring, unexpected living expenses, not tuition or fees. (This ensures they won’t have a negative impact on other financial aid calculations.)
  • Speed matters: students applying for emergency grants typically need money as quickly as possible, meaning simple applications, fast turnaround and efficient disbursement are crucial.
  • Small amounts make a difference. Just $500 can mean the difference between a degree and dropping out.

As we begin to understand more about the struggles many students face with homelessness, food insecurity and school/work balance, we can continue to evolve and innovate our supports. What we know is that emergency grants can make a big difference—and that they work best when they’re a component of a comprehensive support system that includes food pantries, housing assistance, vouchers and financial guidance/mentorship.

With the right safety nets in place, students have the ability to keep working toward their educational goals, ultimately helping to secure a better future for themselves and their families.

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