College students aid peers in need

Emergency grants get them through hardship

Jarquisha Hollings didn’t know where her next meal was coming from.

The Emory University junior recently ran out of money in her meal plan and exhausted her scholarships and financial aid for the semester. She works part-time to support herself and couldn’t ask for help from her mother, who is disabled and unemployed.

Students like Hollings have become more common on college campuses because of the weak economy. While colleges have long provided aid to these students, in recent months college students have found ways to help their cash-strapped peers.

The Emory Student Hardship Fund opened less than a month ago to provide emergency aid to students who find themselves in a crisis not covered by traditional financial aid. The program’s organizers, two Emory seniors, said the grants provide students with a lifeline that allows them to stay in school.

Other colleges, including the University of Georgia and Agnes Scott College, offer emergency loans to students but the Emory program is unique because the money doesn’t have to be repaid.

Hollings received $500 from the fund before Thanksgiving and bought enough groceries to last through finals and a winter coat to keep her warm.

“The money came at a perfect time because I was afraid I’d have to move back home,” said Hollings, who is from Macon. “A lot of college students are struggling and we need help. Students need to know they can ask for and get help.”

About 80 percent of Emory’s nearly 13,380 undergraduate and graduate students receive some form of financial aid, colleges officials said.

Emory provides grants to Hollings and other students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year so they graduate debt-free. Students whose families earn $50,000 to $100,00 a year won’t graduate with more than $15,000 in debt. About 10 percent of the undergraduates participate in this Emory Advantage program.

More Emory students are struggling financially, as seen by the number of freshmen receiving the federal Pell Grant for low-income students. About 10 percent received it in 2006, while nearly 18 percent did this year.

At UGA, the number of students relying on Pell Grants has more than doubled since the recession, and in September a food pantry opened for students on campus. About 20 student groups stock the pantry to help students who may not have money for groceries after paying tuition, books and other costs.

Other colleges, including the University of Arkansas, Florida State University and the University of Central Florida, provide food pantries.

Emory seniors Stephen Ratner and Jordan Stein launched the hardship initiative about a month ago after a year of planning and raising about $5,500. Nine students have applied so far and the fund has awarded $2,000.

A committee of students, faculty and administrators reviews requests for the hardship funds. The program will provide up to $500 to help students through catastrophic events — everything from uninsured medical expenses to a death in the family that forces them to have to fly home or apartments destroyed by floods.

The committee also asks if students’ current financial struggles will make it difficult for them to remain in college. The money is meant to help students out in an emergency and not pay for their tuition. Some students, like Hollings, can receive aid because they are unable to cover basic living expenses through no fault of their own. While her college costs are covered by financial aid, Hollings said she took out a loan to pay for basics, such as insurance.

“Far too often people pass the buck, but at the end of the day all students are similar and we want to help any student that is in a bind,” Ratner said. “Helping the most vulnerable in a community helps the entire community. I think we students understand that with the way the economy is today any one of us could fall into this situation.”

Stein said the Emory hardship program could be replicated by colleges across the country. He and Ratner believe it to be the first of its kind in the country. The program is administered through the college’s financial aid office and has received approval from President James Wagner. Ratner and Stein are planning T-shirt sales and other fund-raisers to support the fund.

The grant idea originated with Maria Town, a former student government association president who graduated in 2009. She suggested a program to help the many students on campus who were hurt by the economic downturn.

Ratner and Stein built on the idea after noticing a lack of quick financial aid for emergencies could derail a student’s education experience. Students often don’t realize until they’re on campus that the cost of college far exceeds tuition, they said. Emory’s tuition is $40,600 this year.

With the program, “students can help students in a meaningful way,” Stein said. “You don’t need to throw huge amounts of money at it or use sweeping reforms to make a difference.”

Emory Student Hardship Fund

The Emory Student Hardship Fund launched about a month ago and provides students with up to $500 in grants to help them get through financial emergencies. The program is supported by donations. For more information about the fund go to www.emory.edu/hardship.