Universities Get Creative With Emergency Funds for Students Displaced by Coronavirus

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

College and university emergency funds — a relatively new concept in the world of higher education — have taken on added significance as thousands of displaced students continue to grapple with the fallout from the novel coronavirus outbreak.

While some schools already had emergency grant aid in place for students experiencing housing loss or unexpected life events such as a car accident or death in the family, several schools recently have made funds available to give to students in the form of one-time grants as the ongoing pandemic forced thousands of students to leave campus and cope with financial hardship.

“Institutions that offer student aid come in all different types and sizes, with varying degrees of resources, staffing, and challenges,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. “But the one thing they have in common are financial aid offices staffed by people who are committed to putting students first.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison was among one of several schools that launched a specific emergency support fund fueled by donations, aimed at giving students money for food and personal items along with housing and storage costs associated with having to move off campus.

Karla Weber, the communications manager for the office of financial aid at UW-Madison, said very few students were aware of the emergency grants until this month when pressing needs forced them to look for funding.

The university decided to move the grant approval process from the office of the dean to the financial aid office to both streamline the process and better assist students with aid-related questions. In just a handful of days, the financial aid office has seen an influx of requests, more than 70, ranging from $100 to $4,000 as students assess their financial situation with many out of work as the university is shut down for the semester. 

Even so, Weber said, there is a limit to how much the office can help these students.

“A lot of the students who apply for this emergency grant weren’t aware that they may not be eligible to receive assistance if they have already been awarded the maximum amount of financial aid,” she said.

Pennsylvania State University and the University of Florida also had emergency funds already in place, but are now directing donations from those funds to help students impacted by the coronavirus.
Dozens of other schools are taking similar measures to best assist their student bodies as many have shifted to online classes for the rest of the semester to slow the spread of the virus. Many of the schools are promoting their relief funds on social media in an effort to make sure students are aware.

Northern Kentucky University (NKU), for example, created its emergency fund just last week and has already raised more than $35,000 as of Wednesday.

“We hope this fund alleviates some of the anxiety that our students may be experiencing during this time of uncertainty,” NKU President Ashish Vaidya said while announcing the emergency fund.

For students at NKU to request the emergency funds, they simply need to specify how much they are asking for and explain how the coronavirus adversely impacted them, along with some additional details about their financial situation. NKU has already received more than 45 applications to utilize the emergency fund.

Colleges and universities aren’t only giving out money to students in the form of one-time grants. Many schools are also refunding room and board for students forced to leave residence halls amid the coronavirus crisis.

As Harvard students were forced to leave campus for the year, the Dean of Students Office announced all students receiving a financial aid package will be eligible to have their travel and storage costs reimbursed.

Undergraduates with a $0 parent contribution will be fully reimbursed and all other students who receive financial aid will be reimbursed up to $750 depending on how much aid they receive, according to the dean’s office.

The State University of New York system announced this week that it would give students who paid their bill for the spring semester a prorated credit for room and board to be applied for the fall semester. Some schools — such as Michigan State University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Louisiana State University — will allow students to receive a partial refund for the difference in their prorated housing and dining plans.

With students unlikely to return to campus this academic year, many schools are still assessing how to best serve them and are still considering whether to return room and board fees.
Other institutions have established funds specifically for students who have left campus to be able to obtain a laptop and have access to reliable internet, such as Foothill College outside San Jose, California, one of the areas hit hardest by the coronavirus.

Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, announced last week that it would cancel its spring commencement ceremony and instead use the funds to assist students impacted by the pandemic.

The college has reallocated $550,000 from now-canceled campus events, including commencement, to a scholarship and grants account within the its operating budget “to assist students in need with tuition, fees, books, supplies and/or technology,” the college’s senior vice presidents wrote in a release announcing the decision.

And it’s not just the institutions getting involved. Students themselves have created shareable spreadsheets where those in need can post what they are looking for and others who have money, storage space, or free housing available can post their contact information so their peers can get in touch. Students can then access a read-only spreadsheet, view the resources available, and contact contributors whose offerings matched their needs.

The idea took off at Middlebury College in Vermont earlier this month and has since spread to several student bodies as they organize resources through similar documents and Facebook groups.

Draeger noted that he was encouraged to see how institutions are supporting their students in this time of need.

“During this time of national crisis, one glimmer of hope for me has been story after story of aid professionals doing whatever they can to help their students,” he said. “These are unprecedented times and call for unprecedented measures. I am comforted in knowing that we have professionals who are meeting the challenge.”


Publication Date: 3/26/2020

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