The email arrived like a punch in the gut. You have exhausted your Pell Grant funds. In order to take this class, you will need to pay out of pocket.
Jimmieka Mills was familiar with that feeling. When she’d shown up at the financial aid office of a Houston Community College campus at age 19, she was told she couldn’t receive tuition money without documentation from her parents—the same parents from whom she’d been estranged for three years. When she rode the bus to each of the system’s other campuses to seek support, she learned that she might qualify for aid in a few years, once she turned 24, got married or had a child of her own.
At age 22, Mills became pregnant, got financial aid and quickly signed up for classes. But she soon had to take time off of school to care for her son, and later to help her sister after their parents died. When Mills returned to community college, she often struggled to come up with enough cash for food and housing, let alone classes.
“I can’t afford to pay to park at the downtown campus. I can’t afford to pay for WiFi, so I can’t take this online class and save myself the gas,” she thought. “I don’t have these small things that are really a huge, huge barrier when you’re already living in poverty and struggling.”
Over nearly a decade, Mills slowly earned her degree. And then one day she opened her inbox to discover her aid was spent, and that $256, for one final math class, stood between her and her diploma.
“That was money out of my son’s mouth,” she says. “I could never have taken from him to do that.”
The scales that measure higher education costs are usually set in thousand-dollar increments. Yet much smaller sums that would barely register for some students weigh heavily on others. Fifty dollars for an extra textbook. Twenty dollars for gas to get to campus. A couple of bucks for a snack between classes.
Recognizing the significance of these modest-but-burdensome expenses, a few years ago Temple University professor and college affordability activist Sara Goldrick-Rab started the FAST Fund. The philanthropic program provides $5,000 grants to professors, who over the course of a school year give small amounts—with few questions asked—to college students who come forward with urgent financial needs.
So far, most of the recipients have been professors at community colleges and institutions that primarily serve minority students. This week, the FAST Fund named its 2019-2020 cohort: professors Ryan Gamba of California State University at East Bay, Karrȧ Shimabukuro at Elizabeth City State University, Lillie Kirsch at Marion Technical College and Jessica Dean at Western Wyoming Community College.
Relying on Relationships
Your professor hears your stomach growling. They are the first ones to realize there is something wrong.”
By giving professors, not colleges, control of donated dollars, the FAST Fund is designed to bypass the bureaucracy of institutional emergency aid funds, which often require students to fill out lengthy applications and document their need.
“What really bothers me about most college emergency aid funds is they’re the opposite of fast,” Goldrick-Rab says. “When money goes into the institution, it gets wrapped up in red tape. The whole point of this is to allow faculty to become ‘my rich uncle,’ ‘my rich aunt,’ who just support these students the way better-off students [are supported] every day.”
The process also recognizes that professors are front-line witnesses to student poverty.
“It can scream to a professor,” says Mills, who is now a consultant and writer and whom Goldrick-Rab recruited to serve as a board member for the FAST Fund. “Your professor hears your stomach growling, sees you sleep in the back of the class or if you’re late every day, or if, when you turn your work in, there are issues. They are the first ones to realize there is something wrong.”
Many faculty members who encounter struggling students already respond by making donations, but out of their own pockets. Goldrick-Rab hopes the FAST Fund encourages this kind of generosity while alleviating the burden on instructors, many of whom are themselves in precarious financial circumstances.
“Most faculty are making poverty wages now; adjunct faculty are the majority,” Goldrick-Rab says.
Beyond addressing immediate needs, aid coming from faculty may actually help retain students long-term by offering them evidence that someone at their college cares about their well-being, Goldrick-Rab says, citing research by sociologist Vincent Tinto.
Believing in Students, and Faculty
The FAST Fund is administered through a nonprofit that Goldrick-Rab started, called Believe in Students. In the spirit of that name, the program permits professor grant recipients to develop their own strategies for allocating their $5,000 without requiring much documentation in return.
Some have supported students in increments of $500; others, $25 to $75. One bought a bunch of Clif Bars and gave them out to other professors to distribute to hungry students. A few professors have leveraged their dollars against their college’s emergency funds, telling students to apply for that money first, then come back if their applications are rejected. The hope is that this approach will raise awareness among students about other support they might have access to and also raise awareness among college officials of the needs of those students.
“I love the differences,” Goldrick-Rab says. “I love that this has absolutely taught faculty, who have taught each other.”
One guideline: The funds are not intended to reward students who earn the best grades. That’s important to Mills, who remembers having to report her GPA on scholarship applications.
“Come on now. We have to look at the cause and effect. For you to tell me I have to be a stellar student to get help—it’s counterproductive,” she says. “When we think about barriers and what barriers actually do, if I don’t know where I’m going to sleep or what I’m going to eat, my schooling is going to be impacted.”
In 2017, Lauren Jones, then a professor of developmental writing and reading at Columbus State Community College, received a FAST Fund grant to help provide for her students, like the one who often left a morning class early to stand in line for lunch at a nearby food pantry.
Jones established a five-person faculty advisory committee to oversee the grant. Members decided to use the money to buy bus passes and Kroger grocery and gas gift cards to give out. They also covered occasional requests for parking money.
“We didn’t really ask anyone for permission,” Jones says. “There was a little bit of shock, that ‘they’re just doing this on their own.’”
The committee spread word of the resources within the developmental learning and student advocacy departments. Interested students filled out a brief form, and then committee members quickly weighed in via email or text message about how to proceed. Two “yes” votes meant a student got support.
The grant has helped 39 students so far, Jones says, and she has three bus passes and two or three Kroger gift cards left.
“It’s been nice as faculty to have something at your fingertips you could give out,” Jones says. “Instead of saying, ‘You’re not showing up to class,’ it was ‘Why aren’t you showing up to class, and do you need help?’ That’s a huge paradigm shift for faculty and students, to hear someone isn’t just upset that they’re not there, but offering to help.”
I am using every tool that I possibly can at this stage to get money to these students.”
Goldrick-Rab has no illusions that the FAST Fund is a long-term solution to the problem of unequal access to higher education. And she’s involved in lots of other work that might be considered more systemic.
Still, she’s heartened by the momentum the fund, now in its fourth year, has generated since she seeded it herself with proceeds from sales of her book “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream” and the $100,000 prize she won from the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Education. About half of the sites that have received FAST Fund grants are trying to sustain their programs and have done their own fundraising.
Part of the appeal these efforts have for donors is the difference a college degree makes on a graduate’s earning potential, says Doug Webber, associate professor at Temple University who donates to FAST Fund and serves on its board.
“I’m an economist; I think a lot about the bang for your buck. If I’m going to give $1,000 or $5,000 to something, I want to give it to the place it’s going to have the biggest social impact. I think this at least has the potential to do that,” he says.
All money raised locally passes through Believe in Students, then goes right back without any cuts for administrative costs—a setup that might not be sustainable as the nonprofit grows, Goldrick-Rab admits, since currently she, her husband and kids take on much of the work as volunteers. And she does hope the organization grows, perhaps with a new program that gives aid directly to students themselves.
“I am using every tool that I possibly can at this stage to get money to these students,” Goldrick-Rab says.
In Columbus, Jones credits her FAST Fund grant with spurring her institution to develop a full-scale emergency fund to better serve its 46,000 students, incorporating the lessons she and her advisory committee learned.
“I think there was interest, but I think having this grant gave it more momentum,” she says.
Despite setbacks, Mills recently earned her associate degree, crossing the commencement stage with her nine-year-old son in the audience.
She’s been gratified to read through FAST Fund grant applications and help select the faculty members who will intervene on behalf of struggling students, with whom she can empathize personally.
“Had I been able to go directly to that college math professor and say, ‘Hey, I need to enroll in this class,’ and the professor says, ‘Don’t worry about it, here’s the emergency fund’—now I don’t have to take on credit card debt or possibly drop out,” Mills says. “That would have significantly changed my experience.”