For college students in crisis, emergency grants are a lifeline

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No matter how small, any unpaid balance can prevent a college senior who's otherwise in good standing from graduating. During the pandemic, this became a very real risk for some.

Christian O'Neil, 25, was on track to receive his diploma last June but his college funds ran dry midway through his senior year.

O'Neil had spent two years at a community college before transferring to the University of California, Riverside. His federal Pell Grant wasn't enough to cover the entire cost without taking on more student loan debt.

“I was 400 miles away from home, with no expectation of help from my parents,” he said.

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Instead, UC Riverside stepped in and offered O'Neil $1,000 for each of his remaining three quarters of school.

“It was very instrumental in completing my degree,” he said. Otherwise, “I would have had to drop out.”

Research shows that even a $100 late fee or parking fine can derail a student's graduation plans in their final semester.  

Now, nearly a dozen of the nation's largest public research universities — known as the University Innovation Alliance — are giving out “college completion grants” of up to $1,000 so students like O'Neil can get their diploma.

Higher ed processes are not always designed around the needs of the student,” said the alliance's executive director, Bridget Burns. But, “if it doesn't work for the student, it doesn't work.

Michael Jung | Getty Images

After graduating, O'Neil went on to pursue a master's in electrical engineering and will graduate with his advanced degree next month.

The alliance includes UC Riverside, as well as the University of Central Florida, the University of Kansas, Arizona State, Georgia State, Iowa State, Michigan State, Ohio State, Oregon State and Purdue.

The completion grant initiative is not new, it's just more relevant now due to the pandemic.

The University Innovation Alliance first came together in 2014 to help more low-income students graduate, according to Burns. “Since Covid, we found the work we did on completion grants was urgent.”

The coronavirus outbreak often came with added costs for college students, including the need to secure housing or a plane ticket when campus dorms closed suddenly or a new laptop for virtual learning.

Many students also had to find work or pick up additional hours to pitch in at home if their families were under financial strain, which jeopardized their own academic standing.

It's been a very difficult year for our students.
Renata Opoczynski
assistant dean for student success assessment at Michigan State University

“They ended up in precarious situations because of Covid-19,” said Kevin Graham, a University Innovation Alliance Fellow at UC Riverside.

Financial aid administrators also expressed concerns that students would cover their remaining balances with a credit card or personal loan, which could set them up for additional financial struggles down the line.

To date, $3.6 million worth of completion grants have been given to nearly 5,000 seniors. With an average award of $741, 83% of the students who received the funds either graduated or are on track to graduate, the alliance said.

“It's been a very difficult year for our students,” said Renata Opoczynski, an assistant dean for student success assessment at Michigan State University. “They've expressed much higher need not just for financial support but not being able to find food or housing.”

For students who are struggling, there are other measures also in place. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan includes $12 billion for food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

It will extend the 15% monthly bump in benefits that the last Covid relief bill gave to all SNAP recipients through September.

Food insecurity has become a widespread issue amid the Covid crisis, particularly on college campuses. More than 60% of students have experienced food or housing insecurity, according to one report from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

At the same time, “students with basic needs insecurity are not accessing all of the public benefits that they could,” the report said.

For advice on how apply for SNAP benefits, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities offers a state-by-state guide. Students can also visit their college or university's financial aid office for help.

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