For college students in crisis, emergency grants are a lifeline

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

Christian O’Neil, 25, was well on his way to getting his diploma last June, but his college funds were running low in the middle of his senior year.

O’Neil had spent two years at a community college before moving to the University of California at Riverside. His federal Pell grant was insufficient to cover all costs without taking on more student loan debt.

“I was 400 miles from home without expecting my parents’ help,” 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 the school.

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

Research shows that even a late fee of $ 100 or a parking fee can ruin a student’s final semester graduation plans.

Now, nearly a dozen of the nation’s largest public research universities – known as the University Innovation Alliance – award up to $ 1,000 “college graduation” grants for graduate degrees for students like O’Neil.

“Higher processes are not always tailored to the needs of the students,” said Bridget Burns, managing director of the alliance. But “if it doesn’t work for the student, it won’t work.”

Michael Jung | Getty Images

Upon graduation, O’Neil earned a Masters in Electrical Engineering and will graduate next month with his advanced degree.

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

The graduation grant initiative isn’t new, it’s just more relevant due to the pandemic.

According to Burns, the University Innovation Alliance first teamed up in 2014 to help more low-income students graduate. “Since Covid, we’ve found that work on graduation grants was urgent.”

The coronavirus outbreak has often come with additional costs for students, including the need to secure accommodation or a plane ticket if student dormitories suddenly shut down, or a new laptop for virtual learning.

Many students also had to find work or take extra hours to work at home when their families were under financial strain, which put their own academic position at risk.

It was a very difficult year for our students.

Renata Opoczynski

Assistant Dean at Michigan State University

“You are in precarious situations because of Covid-19,” said Kevin Graham, Fellow of the University Innovation Alliance at UC Riverside.

The grant administrators also raised concerns that students could use a credit card or personal loan to fund their remaining balances, which could set them up for additional financial problems down the line.

To date, nearly 5,000 seniors have received graduation grants worth $ 3.6 million. With an average award of $ 741, 83% of students who received the funds have either graduated or are on their way to graduation, according to Allianz.

“It’s been a very difficult year for our students,” said Renata Opoczynski, assistant dean for Student Achievement Assessment and Strategic Initiatives at Michigan State University. “They expressed a much greater need not only to need financial support, but also not to find food or shelter.”

There are other measures for students who have problems. The US $ 1.9 trillion rescue plan includes $ 12 billion for nutritional assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

This extends the monthly performance increase of 15% that the last Covid relief bill granted to all SNAP recipients until September.

Food insecurity has become a widespread issue during the Covid crisis, especially on college campuses. According to a report by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, more than 60% of students have experienced food or housing insecurity.

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

For advice on applying for SNAP benefits, the Budget and Policy Priorities Center provides a state-to-state guide. Students can also visit their college or university financial aid office for help.

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