Keeping students enrolled, one emergency fund grant at a time

You’re a single parent who is working, caring for your child and trying to keep up with classes at the local technical college. You need to finish so you can get the kind of job you need to support your family, since your husband just died unexpectedly. Now you don’t have enough money to pay for books for your final semester before graduation.

Lily Whitmore
Lilly Whitmore is just one of hundreds of students who have benefitted from the FAST Fund.

This is Shonda’s story. A student at Milwaukee Area Technical College, Shonda turned to a faculty-run emergency fund for help and was able to pay for those books. She went on to graduate and wants other students to know that the FAST Fund—Faculty and Students Together—can be a lifeline, not only at MATC but at colleges across the country.

Since it launched in 2016, the MATC fund, administered by the faculty-staff union AFT Local 212, has helped 1,426 students. The local’s recently released report shows that, in the 2020-21 school year, 488 students applied for aid; an impressive 93 percent of survey respondents from among that group were able to stay in college or graduate.

Using small amounts of money, the fund pays utility bills, distributes gas cards or provides other direct assistance when the need is urgent. There is no red tape, and few questions are asked beyond “what do you need?”

Many of the students’ stories are not nearly as dire as Shonda’s: It could be that someone’s car broke down, and they can’t get to campus until they can pay for repairs. Or maybe there’s a laptop required to complete a course online, but the student can’t afford to purchase one.

With the FAST Fund, students don’t have to struggle with the small things in order to focus on school, says Tiff Pua, a TV and video production professor at MATC. Those small things add up: Sometimes students are so immersed in parenting, working and just trying to pay their bills that “life gets in the way,” she says, and school becomes a second priority. Pua, who writes about her experience with the FAST Fund on AFT Voices, has also seen students about to lose their housing or struggling to get enough food. Some students drop out. The FAST Fund can make all the difference.

“The FAST Fund helped me pay the remainder of my rent when I had COVID-19,” writes one student. “The FAST Fund helped me pay for school during the pandemic after I lost my job and I was laid off,” writes another. And another says, “The FAST Fund helped me get my Wi-Fi equipment and set up in my new house which is closer to school. I’m able to stay connected with school and complete my homework on time without having to search for Wi-Fi.”

Fast Fund and Digital Bridge
FAST Fund partnered with Digital Bridge to distribute laptops to students in need.

Traci Kirtley, executive director of Believe In Students, the organization that operates FAST Funds, remembers one student who needed gas cards to get back and forth to campus. “With just that little bit of support at a couple of key moments when she really needed it, she was able to stay in school,” said Kirtley. Now the student has a 4.0 GPA. “To think that she might have been derailed from that plan over some gas.”

Sometimes, faculty connect students to other resources. Liz Franczyk, the executive director for Local 212’s fund, describes a young father whose overwhelming needs included help with bills, rent and tools for his work repairing cars. Franczyk, who writes about her work with the FAST Fund on AFT Voices, helped him secure a paid sponsorship at the local car dealership where he interns as an auto mechanic; it included a full set of mechanic’s tools.

FAST Funds were founded in 2016 by Michael Rosen, then president of Local 212, and Sara Goldrick-Rab, then a Local 212 member and now an AFT member of the Temple Association of University Professionals. When Goldrick-Rab’s book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, won the Grawemeyer Award in Education in 2017, she donated the $100,000 prize to start Believe in Students, allowing FAST Funds to expand nationally. The AFT contributed $100,000 in 2021. Now, under the banner of Believe in Students, there are FAST Funds at 32 schools across the nation, from Northwest Washington (Green River College) to Southeast Florida (Miami Dade College).

Our students are, , “trying to do something for themselves in a country that does very little to help them,” says Rosen, who is still involved with Local 212. “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.”

While advocates also work on policy that makes higher education more accessible and affordable for everyone, helping individuals can make a big difference in the day-to-day experience of college students. “The faculty members involved in the FAST Fund see their students struggling, and they want to help,” says Kirtley.

[Virginia Myers]