Displaced students turn to crowdfunding for unexpected expenses

The closure of college campuses amid the COVID-19 outbreak has left many lower-income students straining to manage last-minute moving and travel expenses. While some have been able to access emergency aid through their universities, others have taken to social media and crowdfunding sites in hopes of getting help.

The COVID-19 disruption poses an especially large risk to students at public and community colleges with scant financial resources, institutions that not only have less to give but also serve larger shares of low-income students, writes Saahil Desai in The Atlantic.

Emergency aid limited at some community, public colleges

Elite schools like Davidson College and Princeton University have been able to help financially strapped students with the cost of plane tickets home and loaner laptops. In contrast, many public colleges with smaller endowments were struggling financially well before the coronavirus pandemic began and may not have emergency funding. To drive the disparity home, Desai points out that Harvard University’s $41 billion endowment alone exceeds the combined total of all American community college endowments.

The imbalance has significant implications for low-income college students’ risk of dropping out following COVID-19 disruptions, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. “There’s a very real chance that students facing financial crises—which are about to get worse—will not be coming back to school,” she told The Atlantic. “This is a disaster. You’re putting the most disadvantaged students at a bigger educational disadvantage.”

Students crowdfunding displacement aid

Even at schools like Harvard, which is “offering students on financial aid a $200 credit toward shipping or storing their items,” low-income students are turning to crowdfunding and “Venmo boosting” to finance their campus evacuations and compensate for lost income, writes Refinery29.

“Because of the crowdfunding… I’ve been able to make my bill payments, cover flight costs and storage costs,” a Harvard student named Tania told Refinery29. “But looking toward the future and not knowing whether I will have a job, or be able to complete assignments because of lack of resources, is what’s weighing most heavily on my mind. I just hope we can all continue to help each other as a community.”

Student organizers at several colleges have created community resources for peers in need, spreading the word through social media. Students at Middlebury College published a “mutual aid” spreadsheet online, where community members could communicate a need and others could offer available resources, such as funding, storage space, and housing, reports Inside Higher Ed. The student council at the University of Virginia has raised more than $10,000 for student aid and matched donors to students in need.

Spreading the word about available aid

Schools are taking varying approaches to ensuring privacy and prioritizing need. At the University of Pittsburgh, students can submit their transportation, housing, or storage needs via a private Google form, then organizers match those students with people volunteering to help.

At Wesleyan University, where organizers raised more than $45,000 on a GoFundMe account in one day, students seeking assistance must be first-generation or low-income. They are asked to rank their level of need on a scale of one to five but are not required to provide evidence.

Noah French, a student who organized a mutual aid spreadsheet at University of Texas at Austin, said getting students to publicly post about the resource has been an obstacle due to perceived social norms around poverty. “There’s a lot of shame and guilt harbored in those people who know that they need something but have been told their whole life not to ask for it,” French told Inside Higher Ed. “As long as it was able to help one person, it was worth it.”


Interested in helping students facing unanticipated expenses?

A gift to Georgetown University’s COVID-19 Crisis Response Fund for Students will support the university’s commitment to providing assistance to any student who requires it.

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