Colleges hand out emergency cash to more students

Howard Books
Howard Books, 45, is a student at Inver Hills Community College. After losing his job and his house to foreclosure, Books received a grant from the college to repair his truck. He says without the grant he wouldn't have been able to drive to class, and likely would have dropped out of school.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Paying for college isn't easy. And even if someone has the money for tuition, one unexpected bill like a car repair could be enough to force a student to drop out.

Most Minnesota colleges have a little-known pool of money set aside to help low income students facing financial hardships. Because of the poor economy, the need for those emergency funds is on the rise.

For the last four years, Howard Books, 45, has been chipping away at a degree in construction management at Inver Hills Community College.

A few years ago, the 15-year Army veteran was injured while working, and lost his union carpentry job. Then he got a divorce. And then he lost his house.

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To add insult to injury, his truck broke down, and he couldn't afford to fix it. Without a truck, he knew he couldn't make it from his home in Woodbury to school at Inver Grove Heights.

Books decided it was time to ask for help.

"Whatever I can get I'm going to take. Because I've learned sometimes you have to put the pride to the side and ask," said Books.

Books told his story to a counselor at Inver Hills Community College. The counselor directed him to the school's "Have a Heart Fund," a pool of money set aside to help students with financial emergencies.

"The emergencies are growing as fast as the economy has retrenched."

Books filled out an application and received a grant for a few hundred dollars, enough to fix his truck.

"That meant the difference between me making it to class and being successful, and just putting it on the back burner again," said Books.

Inver Hills Community College started its Have a Heart fund about 10 years ago.

The fund isn't there to help students pay for tuition, it's for unexpected financial emergencies. That could mean money for car repairs, cash to pay for gas or a bus pass, or even money for food or rent.

Gail Morrison, the director of the college's foundation, poses a question to students when they apply for help through the program.

"'Do you need this so that you can stay in school?' This fund is intended to help individuals stay in school," she said.

Morrison says the emergency fund is part of Inver Hills Community College's effort to retain students.

The school doesn't want an unexpected bill of a few hundred dollars to force a student to drop out. That's bad for the student, and it hurts the college's graduation and placement rate.

Most Minnesota colleges have some sort of program set up to help students through financial emergencies. The funds differ from college to college. Some hand out money in the form of grants, others as loans.

The fund's bank accounts can hold a few thousand dollars up to a $100,000. The funds are usually supported by donations from employees, companies and foundations.

But many students don't know about the funds. That's because colleges like to keep the small programs relatively secret, for fear they'll be inundated with requests that would drain the fund.

Geoff Dutton, a senior at the University of Minnesota, is director of the the U of M's Student Emergency Loan Fund.

Students are allowed to borrow up to $1,000 a year. They have to pay it back within 120 days.

"We get sufficient volume just from word of mouth and referrals," said Dutton. "If we were advertised, we might be overloaded with applicants."

Dutton says demand for emergency loans has gone up as the economy has faltered. In the fall of 2008, they received 52 requests for loans. Last fall that number jumped to 82 requests, 58 percent more.

Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount has also seen a surge in demand for its emergency grant fund for students.

"We have found that the emergencies are growing as fast as the economy has retrenched," said Sharon LaComb, vice president of Dakota County Technical College.

LaComb says so far this year, the college has given $20,000 to students facing financial emergencies. That's 50 percent more than last year at this time.

Lacomb says as more laid-off workers return to school to get their degrees, especially at community colleges, emergency funds have become more important.

"It has become a major need of this college, and a major need and reason to raise emergency funds," she said.

Dakota County Technical College is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to bolster its emergency funds for students. If the college is able to raise $400,000 by the end of the year, it will receive a matching donation from the Kopp Family Foundation.