09/27/2016

Faculty-run fund helps needy students stay in school

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What do you do when your student can't get to class because she can't afford to repair her broken car? Or she says she's dropping out because with two jobs, daycare drop-off and class assignments, something has to go?

College students need counseling, mentoring and encouragement through these challenges, but sometimes they just need a little money so they can stay in school one more semester, and then another, until graduation.

Sara Goldrick-Rab with studentsThe FAST Fund provides that. Short for Faculty and Students Together, the new, faculty-managed fund is designed to cover emergency situations for students whose financial need may keep them from finishing high school or college. It could pay for a bus pass to make sure a student can get to class, or a security deposit on an apartment when a student is unexpectedly without housing.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology and a member of the AFT's Temple Association of University Professionals (shown above with students), started the FAST Fund this year. She also founded the Wisconsin HOPE Lab (Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education) to research barriers to college completion among low‐income households, students of color and students who are the first in their families to attend college, and to identify solutions.

While the HOPE Lab is about data and policy, the FAST Fund helps individuals, today. "I can't wait anymore for this system to get fixed," says Goldrick-Rab. "Even if the FAST Fund is a Band-Aid, it's what I can do immediately while working on the rest."

This school year, the FAST Fund is being administered at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, high schools in the Madison (Wis.) Metropolitan School District, and Milwaukee Area Technical College, where the fund is being managed by AFT Local 212. MATC has $5,000 in FAST seed money to distribute and build on; the local has already added nearly $1,000 to it since early September.

There are plenty of opportunities to put this sort of stop-gap funding to use, according to Kate Cunningham, a counselor at MATC and a Local 212 member. For example:

  • One student told Cunningham she was still waiting for her financial aid—there is often a delay on this—and she needed a small amount of money to pay her cellphone bill so she could keep looking for a job.
  • Another student needed money after her car was impounded. "She's an Uber driver, so not only was she out of a car, but she was out of a job," explained Michael Rosen, president of Local 212, who worked with the student to get her car back. (He and Sara Goldrick-Rab are pictured below.)
  • Another student moved himself and his siblings to his grandmother's house after his mother was deported, but when the heating bill went up they couldn't pay it. The electric company was threatening to shut off the power.

Sara Goldrick-Rab and Michael RosenThese obstacles would be an inconvenience to people with means, but for those living on the edge, they can mean unemployment, dropping out of school and even homelessness. "A lot of our students are in great need," says Cunningham, who says many lack medical attention, acceptable housing and a reliable source of food. MATC has a food bank for students and an emergency fund of its own; Rosen says the FAST Fund is a welcome supplement.

It's been a long time since "college student" automatically meant "privileged recent high school grad," especially at community colleges. It's also been a long time since college has been truly affordable. In her recently published book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, Goldrick-Rab shows that since 2000, community college costs have increased by 28 percent; at public universities, they've gone up 54 percent. Meanwhile, family income in all but the wealthiest 5 percent of American families fell or stagnated. For families at the lowest income levels, earnings dropped 8 percent.

Seventy percent of undergraduates work; 28 percent of them are employed full time. Goldrick-Rab has blogged about their personal stories, and in Paying the Price, she tells how individuals strive to complete college despite these challenges.

Cunningham sees a lot of need but says her students are "amazingly resilient." Many come from Milwaukee's most violent neighborhoods and have experienced loss from gun violence, diseases complicated by poverty, and incarceration of loved ones. But, says Rosen, "Our students are strivers."

While Rosen is working with many individual students to help them solve their daily money problems, as an economist he also sees the big picture. "These are people who are victims of globalization, victims of plant shutdowns, victims of poverty, victims of basically neoliberal policies that have wreaked havoc on our cities, and they're trying to do something for themselves in a country that does very little to help them. We've shredded the social safety net; we've defunded our public colleges and public schools. Yet, against all these odds, they are trying to succeed with the only thing left out there that is a life raft—which is education."

Rosen has even paid personally to help students who are in a bind, including one who returned to school after taking two years off to take over the family business when his father was deported. He knows plenty of students who are couch surfing after a breakup—"That's basically homelessness," he says—or staying late at school to use the Wi-Fi because they can't afford it at home.

Getting Local 212 involved in the FAST Fund was a no-brainer, says Rosen. "Just as we fight to preserve funding for higher education, just as we fight to protect social safety net programs, we have an obligation to help students deal with these immediate economic problems to the extent that we can," he says. "Not because it's going to change the world, but it'll help these student succeed. Isn't that what faculty are supposed to do?"

"Labor unions historically are all about social justice, and this is certainly a social justice issue," says Cunningham. "It's about trying to level the playing field even just a little bit.

"I work with students who are working so hard just to make ends meet. Maybe they have enough money to feed their kids but not themselves; maybe they have enough to make rent but they can't afford the double down payment. Having this fund and being able to provide even a little bit of relief for folks who are trying so hard to persevere very much speaks to the social justice attitude that people in Local 212 have."

[Virginia Myers/photos by John Saller]