When I was 20 years old and nearly finished with college, I had a bad week at work. Business was slow, and the tips I made serving burgers and fries had fallen off. I didn’t have quite enough money to pay rent.
So I called my grandfather. Fifteen minutes later, Poppa put a check in the mail — $300 to help me get through the month, and keep me focused on school. He’s always had my back, supporting me without judgement, so I didn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. I simply felt relief.
The voices of students in a recent report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy reveal that I’m not alone in running into financial trouble during college. Prices have gone up since I finished college twenty years ago, and so IHEP asked students if they could cover a $2,000 emergency. Their responses are disturbing. Very few have a parent or grandparent who can help. Those findings are confirmed yet again in a new report out today from Trellis’s Financial Wellness Survey, which find that “students’ finances appear precarious, susceptible to unexpected expenses that might derail their academic standing. More than three out of five respondents(63 percent) indicated they would have trouble getting $500 in cash or credit in
case of an emergency.” The survey shows that these students are also more likely to be struggling with food insecurity.
For those of us close to it, the suffering felt by today’s students is impossible to stomach. After all, we know what’s causing it. The new economics of college, which I painstakingly described in Paying the Price, are only getting worse. As a cisgender white woman I was at far less risk than many other students subject to the racial wealth gap, discrimination, and worse. How much more research do we need before we act?
In my view, none. So I’m all in. Today I become the Chief Strategy Officer for Emergency Aid at Edquity, a Brooklyn-based student financial success and emergency aid company. While maintaining my roles as professor at Temple University and Founding Director at the Hope Center on College, Community, and Justice, I’m engaging in another type of activism to help students. I figure I should use every possible tool to help them survive, and hopefully thrive, in a badly broken system.
I turned to Edquity after years of trying other things. I’ve worked to reform state and federal policy, and I created and run a nonprofit helping professors support their students. I’m engaged in the current presidential campaign, and volunteering across the country to support philanthropic efforts and community-based organizations, including student-led efforts. But none of these things are advancing fast enough to keep millions of students from falling through the cracks. Every day college leaders approach me with their desire to help students with a crisis, stressed that they don’t have an effective mechanism for doing so. Only a nimble, brave, and innovative organization with a sustainable business model can fill the gap.
That’s Edquity. I’ve known our CEO, David Helene, for about five years. He shows up at my talks, calls me to chat, and tolerates my constant questions about why businesses need to present solutions in higher education given that government has, at least temporarily, abdicated this responsibility. His existing product recognizes that students have financial struggles not because they aren’t smart about money, but because they simply lack the dollars — and the social capital — wealthier students depend on to survive a crisis. I’ve also learned that David is one of those truly rare fin-ed-tech leaders who respects research, really understands equity and justice, and is genuinely on the same page with the rest of us who want to break the mold and rebuild higher education for #RealCollege students. I’m thrilled that my friend Wes Moore agrees, and recently joined Edquity too. Together we are going to make some good trouble.
Chancellor Joe May and the Dallas County Community College District are helping us get started. With the support of the ECMC Foundation we’re finalizing a partnership to pilot a new emergency aid model unlike any other. It’s based on my research and will be rigorously evaluated. We know that in order to work for students, emergency aid must also work for their colleges. Our approach recognizes that the relationship between colleges and students must be strong and trusting to be impactful and promote completion. Our job is to meet their needs, fast, and make every dollar count. We’ve developed a strategy that helps philanthropic and college dollars stretch further, and helps students connect with a broad range of help without taxing already-overworked staff and faculty.
The homeless students I meet practically every week need money, and sometimes they ask for it. If they are lucky, their college provides it (though far too often the college says “here, first fill out this FAFSA-like application and wait 2 weeks,” or “first go max out your federal loans, and then we’ll talk!”). But even $500 in emergency aid delivered with the best of intentions may fall short. After all, what stressed out, exhausted, homeless student has time to go shop around for a place where that $500 can last while they seek sustainable support?
At Edquity, we will do much more to meet their needs. Yes, we can distribute cash, but we can also match them with housing opportunities where that $500 will buy them a multi-week stay, or perhaps even a month of support. We will also connect them to local social services and public benefits. And they will get help without ever having to approach someone at their college and attempt to prove their poverty.
Getting off the sidelines like this will take a lot of work, and in full disclosure I will be financially compensated. This helps ensure that I can direct Edquity’s efforts, keep them on track and focused on students, and helps me responsibly manage my time so I can also attend to my other existing commitments, including my family. I’m grateful to Temple University, and especially Dean Greg Anderson in the College of Education, for working out a Conflict of Interest plan for my engagement.
Angela Davis once said “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change, I’m changing the things I cannot accept.” I’ve long lived by that mantra, and it has guided me to this new role at Edquity. I’m thrilled for the opportunity and especially for how we can directly and immediately improve the lives of students all over the country.