Preventing small, unexpected expenses from becoming big obstacles

Recognizing that even small unexpected costs can sideline low-income students, colleges and nonprofit organizations are finding ways to quickly address those financial barriers. “A lot of people think if you give a kid a scholarship, now the kid’s set, they’ve got everything they need,” Chris Metzler, director of student services at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post, adding, “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Financial barriers are the top reason low-income students pause their studies, said Alice Anne Bailey, from American University’s Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success, adding that “often it’s a little thing, that a middle- or higher-income family wouldn’t even think twice about.”

Addressing transportation gaps

Travel and transportation costs are common obstacles—both during the application process, and throughout students’ undergraduate years. Low-income prospective college students from rural areas, for instance, may struggle to visit and tour colleges. To increase access, Central Michigan University offers to help cover the costs of high school bus trips to its campus. 

Kentucky-based Berea College—a federally recognized work college, where 98 percent of domestic first-year students are Pell grant-eligible—provides free lodging to visiting prospective students and parents in a house on campus and negotiates discounted rates at local hotels. It also allows parents to stay for free in its dorms during summer orientation. “It allows them to participate in something they might otherwise be unable to afford,” said Chris Lakes, the college’s director of student success and transition. 

Related: Transportation access top of mind for campus leaders >

In some instances, Berea has covered a portion of the airfare for students otherwise unable to get to campus at the start of the semester. The New York-based nonprofit On Point for College also seeks to fill transportation gaps, in part by pairing volunteer drivers with students who need rides to and from campus each semester and during breaks. 

Giovanni Harvey, a first-generation student and senior communications major at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, told the Post that, without a ride from On Point, he may have never made it to college: his family had no car and could not afford the $25 bus fare. Since enrolling, Harvey has served as student body president and founded a mentoring program. “That one very basic necessity—transportation—literally made all the difference,” Harvey said.

Making basic living expenses manageable

On Point also provides funds to offset students’ housing deposits. “We’ve had kids come to us and say, ‘Hey, I got into this great university, full scholarship, full ride, but they said I have to make a $300 deposit to secure my room, and I only have $200,’” Executive Director Sam Rowser told the Post

In addition, the organization provides students with necessities such as bedding, school supplies, a clothing allowance, and an alarm clock. Thaddeus Stevens College, meanwhile, provides bins of toiletries for the taking in offices throughout campus. The college has an emergency fund available, as well, to ensure that students can cover unexpected expenses such as medical and dental needs.  

Noting that an unforeseen dental expense nearly ended her college career, Tara Westover, author of the memoir Educated, recently wrote in The New York Times that “in those desperate years a few thousand dollars was enough to alter the whole course of my life.” A grant allowed her to get a much-needed root canal; she also could finally purchase textbooks.

“The day I cashed that check is the day I became a student,” she said, adding that the funds “allowed me to experience for the first time what I now know to be the most powerful advantage of money, which is the ability to think of things besides money.” 

How Georgetown supports students facing unexpected expenses
As part of the university’s commitment to removing financial barriers for students with the greatest need, Georgetown in 2010 began providing grants to students encountering unexpected out-of-pocket expenses such as dental and medical co-pays, and emergency travel.

Funded by our generous donor community and administered by the Georgetown Scholars Program, the GSP Necessity Fund now distributes several thousand grants annually. Interested in supporting the fund? Learn more or give today.

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