For the majority of underserved students in New York City who wish to attend college away from home, the State University of New York (SUNY) colleges are the most accessible and cost-effective options. In order to increase the likelihood that these students will succeed in college, we created a Student Emergency Fund, at six (later extended to 11) SUNY campuses that showed dramatic impact on retention and graduation rates. As a result of our catalytic grants, SUNY campuses themselves committed matching funds to these programs and private philanthropic support for them increased substantially.
The financial aid system often falls short when it comes to supporting college students who are at risk of dropping out 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. In partnership with the Gerstner Family Foundation, our Student Emergency Fund helped SUNY students facing a financial emergency get assistance in the short term so they could persist and graduate in the long term. The SUNY Impact Foundation administered the program, collected data, and studied the effects of the emergency funding. Our grants, dependent upon undergraduate enrollment, permitted each campus to award up to $2,000 per student.
Prior to our establishment of this program, there was little empirical evidence to show the impact of emergency grant programs on college persistence and graduation. Our program tracked these outcomes and demonstrated that recipients of the Student Emergency Fund showed substantially higher achievement rates than the general campus populations. Their combined persistence and graduation rates totaled 91%, 86%, and 88% (undergraduate, first-time, full-time, baccalaureate, and associate-seeking students) one, two, and three semesters after receiving funds, respectively. Comparatively, the SUNY retention rates for the same cohort of students one, two, and three years in was 70%, 49%, and 36%, respectively.
The pilot program showed that even students who do not receive funding find help in other ways because of this initiative. They were connected with program staff who directed them to other available resources they hadn’t considered or of which they were not aware. Seventy-seven percent of applications denied funding were successfully referred to other services.