The financial aid system often falls short when it comes to supporting students who are at risk of dropping out of school because of financial crises caused by, or that result in, unexpected one-time expenses. These include rent arrears, medical expenses, homelessness or threat of eviction, and back-up transportation or car repairs. One-time costs associated with these sudden events are often less than $1,500.
To help students facing a financial emergency get assistance in the short term so they can graduate in the long term, we created an emergency grants program in partnership with the Gerstner Family Foundation—the SUNY Student Emergency Fund—at six SUNY campuses. (For most New York City underserved students who wish to attend college away from home, SUNY is the most accessible and cost-effective option.) The Fund has already shown dramatic impact. Of the 120 students in the first cohort receiving aid in spring 2018, 87.5% persisted or graduated from a two- or four-year college by spring 2019. In the second cohort, of the 170 fall 2018 recipients, 90.6% persisted or graduated by spring 2019.
Campuses are also seeing a catalytic impact of this grant, including an increase in fundraising from other sources (with one senior class donating its senior gift to the program) and increases in the number of students in need coming forward for help and obtaining other forms of campus assistance.
The SUNY Impact Foundation administers the program, collects data, and studies the effects of the funding. Grants were awarded to University at Albany, University at Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo State, Dutchess Community College, SUNY Oneonta, and SUNY Orange. Grant awards, dependent upon undergraduate enrollment, permit each campus to award up to $2,000 per student.
We also funded a program at the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) to increase college graduation rates for its students with outstanding tuition balances of between $100 and $2,000. Building on the work of a small pilot that had shown promise in reducing the dropout rate for low-income college students, we underwrote a wider effort. CUNY SPS developed a multi-faceted communications plan to advertise the opportunity, called “Finish Line,” to students and to award the grants. Students must complete multiple steps before CUNY will forgive the debt. The Office of the Bursar monitors students who receive a Finish Line award and reaches out to those who appear to be in danger of falling behind on payments. Academic advisors ensure that students register only for courses that fulfill their degree requirements and they support students to ensure that they achieve satisfactory academic progress. Students in need of academic support are referred to a 24/7 online tutoring service.