Our philanthropic mission at Great Lakes is to get more at-risk students to and through college because education can help transform their lives, their families, and our communities. Since even small grants have the potential to keep students from low income households—who struggle the most to pay for unexpected expenses—enrolled and on track to graduation, emergency grant programs are a natural fit for our funding strategy.
We funded our first-ever emergency grant program in 2012, and the results were encouraging. Over three years, our grants made it possible for colleges to help nearly 2,700 students in the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS), and colleges reported that those who received emergency grants were more likely to stay in school and graduate.
In 2016, we renamed our program the “Dash Emergency Grant” to better reflect the rapid response needed for effective emergency grants, and as part of our strategy to scale successful programs and significantly grow the number of students served, we extended funding beyond Wisconsin to make an even bigger impact. With this expansion of the Dash Emergency Grant we made it possible for 31 community colleges to help nearly 4,000 students.
Building on that success at two-year colleges, Great Lakes has now extended Dash Emergency Grants to 32 four-year colleges and universities in 2017. We're interested in learning whether there are differences in the types of emergencies experienced by students at four-year colleges, in the average amount requested and how the timing of the request (e.g. fall, spring, or summer semester) affects re-enrollment.
Collaboration & Communication are Keys to Success
Like others who’ve funded similar emergency grant initiatives, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to run a successful program.
Collaboration sets the foundation for success. Creating institution-wide support is essential, and coordinating seamless connections between student services, financial aid, and business offices goes a long way.
Colleges that prioritize their emergency aid programs as part of their student success strategy and mobilize a team to efficiently work across department lines are better prepared to keep students enrolled and progressing toward their degree. Streamlining the intake and awarding processes for quick turnaround has also proved important. After all, what good is an emergency grant to if it’s awarded too late and the affected student has disengaged or already dropped out?
Colleges that actively promote the availability of emergency grants have better results, especially when they advertise in places where students are more likely to hear about it, such as orientation, intranet, social media, and student services.
We’ve also found that colleges need to encourage faculty to identify and refer students they believe are at risk of dropping out due to a financial emergency. In particular, teaching staff are closest to students and may have the best insight into their personal financial situations. However, students facing a financial crisis may be reluctant to ask for help, so it’s important to train staff to be sensitive to students’ self-consciousness about needing aid so they can reassure them it’s okay to apply for an emergency grant.
Filling in the Gaps
We've learned through feedback from our grantees that while our knowledge of best practices has been helpful as colleges set up their programs, we’ve overlooked a critical part—the "human element" in deciding who gets a grant and who doesn't. Current training doesn't cover how to navigate beyond basic eligibility criteria. There are no guidelines for asking the right questions to get at the root cause of each student's financial emergency. And some staff members— who have little experience making decisions that directly affect students in financial crisis—need more holistic training to feel confident making award decisions.
To address this issue, we're funding a project by nonprofit research firm Equal Measure designed to develop better tools for emergency grant decision-makers. Equal Measure will explore the decision-making process through focus groups and interviews, and based on that research, they will develop training materials that will allow administrators to make award decisions with more confidence.
Emergency grant programs continue to be an effective tool for bolstering student success and improving completion rates. We hope contributing this additional knowledge to the field will help more colleges nationwide launch successful emergency grant programs and ultimately help more at-risk students overcome financial challenges, graduate, and launch fulfilling careers in their chosen fields.