Emergency grant programs help college students persist, graduate

Emergency grant programs help boost college students’ persistence and achievement rates, according to a new study analyzing the impacts of the State University of New York’s (SUNY’s) Student Emergency Fund (SEF). The fund provides aid to students facing unexpected expenses from emergencies including eviction, medical crises, or loss of employment—financial stressors that could potentially derail their education. Commissioned by the Hecksher Foundation for Children and conducted by the Sage Foundation, the study outlines how the emergency fund has benefitted SEF award recipients since its launch in 2018 and how similar programs can be implemented at other institutions, The 74 reports. 

Digging deeper into the data

The SEF program had a significant impact on grant applicants and recipients, the study explains. To be eligible to receive SEF grants, SUNY students must be enrolled in an associate or bachelor’s degree program at least half-time, have a minimum 2.0 GPA, and otherwise be in good standing with the university. With funding from the Heckscher Foundation and Gerstner Philanthropies, the SEF grants were made on a rolling basis throughout the academic year and summer, with a recommended maximum of $2,000 per student.

Of the more than 2,000 students who received an SEF grant since 2018, 94% were still enrolled in college or had graduated or completed their program of study in the semester immediately after receiving their award. Additionally, 90% of students who received an SEF grant in fall 2019 were re-enrolled in fall 2020, well above the average retention rate (76%) at the six SUNY campuses and for full-time students nationally.

Related: Georgetown Scholars Program nears $20M goal to permanently fund emergency aid for first-gen and low-income students >

Eight out of 10 SEF award recipients said applying for the grants allowed them to learn about other programs they didn’t know about previously, and 9 out of 10 grantees noted that the program gave rise to a greater sense of belonging to their campus community. SEF recipients also reported feeling more empowered to self-advocate and found their experiences with the program produced positive shifts in mindset and reduced stigma surrounding seeking other resources. 

“Barriers come down so they’re open to receiving support across the spectrum of services,” says one SEF staff member. SUNY campuses with SEF programs also reported learning more about the needs of their own students, which ultimately led to improvements in the ways they provided additional services.


Hoping to expand the number of college students benefiting from the emergency aid model, the study recommends that higher education institutions: 

  • Invest in emergency grant programs to make them financially sustainable
  • Invite university faculty and staff across various departments to be involved from the very beginning in the program’s planning and implementation
  • Develop application requirements from the student’s perspective so they are easy to understand and accessible to students
  • Ensure the application process includes one-on-one meetings between applicants and program staff to discuss students’ situation and possible solutions 
  • Establish quick turnaround time for the application review process to help students address time-sensitive crises
  • Build capacity and data systems to track applications, be responsive to students’ needs, and ensure programs’ long-term sustainability 

Emergency aid for first-generation and low-income Georgetown students
As part of Georgetown University’s commitment to removing financial barriers for students with the greatest need, Georgetown began providing modest grants to students encountering unexpected out-of-pocket expenses in 2010. Funded by our generous donor community and administered by the university’s Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP)—a nationally recognized model for supporting first-generation and low-income students—the GSP Necessity Fund now distributes several thousand grants annually. Thanks to a generous anonymous challenge match from a foundation and support from additional donors, GSP is nearing its goal to permanently endow the program’s Necessity Fund. Learn more >

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