Emergency Aid: Small Grants. Right Time. Big Impact., 9:45-10:45

By Janette Martinez, 2016 Dallas Martin Endowment (DME) Policy Intern

Recently, there has been increased discussion around emergency aid programs on college campuses. During a session on Tuesday morning, Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab of Temple University and Despina Costopolous of Scholarship America shared findings from their December 2015 report, Investing in Student Completion, that studied over 100 emergency grant programs across the country through surveys and interviews with practitioners. The research was done, they said, because many emergency grant programs exist around the country, but there was not much data on best practices or systemic approaches to the program.

Goldrick-Rab shared the patterns seen in emergency aid programs around the country. She said the use of emergency aid programs have gone up because of growing official unmet need, increasing undetected unmet need, increased costs of living, and a shortage of family support. The definition of emergency aid is still being debated, she noted, and the way programs distribute aid varies by institution.

Through the study, the researchers found that emergency grant programs are primarily found in student support services offices, but some institutions distribute emergency grants through financial aid offices or foundations. Campuses decide who runs emergency grant programs based on the funding sources and the legal considerations for the program. When asked to define "emergency," common responses were that emergencies are “unforeseen,” “unexpected,” or “sudden.” Grants were awarded for a one-time occurrence where a student’s financial situation impacted their ability to attend school. Goldrick-Rab pointed out that these definitions are inherently discretionary.

The most common use of emergency money was to cover medical costs, but money was also awarded to cover living, transportation, child care, schooling, and food costs. Most schools required students to attend part-time in order to receive emergency grants, understanding that emergency aid students usually can’t afford to attend school full-time. Some schools also required a minimum GPA and number of credits completed. Less common eligibility requirements included Satisfactory Academic Progress or having previously received financial aid.

When practitioners were asked if they could design their own program, they said they would ideally require documentation of expenses and information on the current financial aid the student receives so they could assess if the problem stemmed from need for aid or from misuse of aid. The most common challenge around emergency aid programs that were highlighted in the presentation was timing. Most schools approve aid within two days and disburse within two days, but some schools can take up to 10 days to disburse.

The presenters provided five common tenets of an emergency grant program. First, many institutions build a connection through in-person interviews to assess the needs of students. Second, timely communication is key. Third, offices have clear bookkeeping. Fourth, offices require documentation of need. Fifth, offices have back-up staff to help with application, approval, and disbursal processes.

When looking at implementation of these programs, the researchers found a common challenge around raising awareness despite limited resources. Some ways to address this included advertising to advisors, professors, and staff so they can pass it onto students. Word-of-mouth was common but not exactly effective. However, fundraising for these emergency aid programs was relatively easy, even easier than traditional aid.

The program closed with five recommendations for emergency grant programs.

  1. Establish and communicate clear criteria for eligibility while also providing flexibility for determinations in unusual circumstances.
  2. Collect and analyze program data to help guide practice.
  3. Coordinate financial aid and emergency aid when it makes sense and avoid doing so when this doesn't help students.
  4. Equip emergency aid program administrators with information about other forms of support for students (benefits, food pantries, emergency housing).
  5. Evaluate the impact of emergency aid programs to improve performance and buttress funding.


Publication Date: 7/12/2016

2019 LLCE Registration Open
View Desktop Version