The Majority of College Students Need Emergency Aid. Their Professors Can Help, Fast

Jan Manla, a 23-year-old nursing student at Los Angeles Valley College, was Zooming with her school counselor this summer when the counselor noticed she was sweating, fanning herself, and hyperventilating. Manla was using her closet as a study, closing the door for privacy while her husband watched their four-year-old son. After spending $1,200 on books and uniforms for school, the family didn’t have spare money for a fan, Manla explained. But the counselor knew someone who could help. Within days, Manla received a compact and quiet device with breeze and cooling functions, making it much easier to focus on her studies.

When students are struggling, even seemingly minor adjustments can make a big difference. Manla had help from the Faculty and Students Together (FAST) Fund, which provides emergency grants, large and small, to students at 30 colleges and universities, usually within 48 hours after they fill out a simple form.

Nearly 60 percent of U.S. college students reported struggling to meet basic needs like food and housing during the past year. But the same study also found that 85 percent of those students did not apply for emergency aid, either because they didn’t know it was available, didn’t know how to apply, or thought they were ineligible. And not surprisingly, access to aid reveals serious equity issues: White students were more likely to apply; meanwhile, Black and Latinx students were both more likely to need aid, and less likely to get it.

So how can we help close this gap? When college students have access to rapid emergency aid for unexpected expenses like computer repairs, housing assistance, or childcare, they are more likely to stay in school and feel more confident they belong in college. In fact, a recent study looking at students who received support at Los Angeles’ Compton College found that those students were twice as likely to graduate. Another study released this fall by the Hope Center, an action research non-profit, shows that far more college students need help than are actually receiving it.

Faculty members, who see their classes several times a week, are best positioned to see when a student is struggling and let students know help is available, week in and week out. Students know them, they trust them, and they may be more likely to open up to them than to other adults on campus. But too often, faculty members don’t know where to turn when they see students struggling to hand in assignments or stay awake in class because they just worked the graveyard shift at McDonald’s.

The FAST Fund, supported through grants and local fundraising, encourages college faculty to let all students know — through a statement on every syllabus, digital communications, and through regular conversations — that they can find aid quickly, simply, and without stigma. Via the FAST Fund, a student can hear directly that they don’t have to choose between fixing their car and finishing school. Meanwhile, they can connect students with other campus resources for longer-term solutions, such as food stamps, childcare benefits and support groups. And importantly: the FAST Fund is a clear demonstration to students that their professors care about them as human beings and support their success.

After Manla requested the fan, she was encouraged to join a weekly parents’ support group through her school’s Family Resource Center, where she made friends and became a better version of herself.

“It started from a fan, and I gained a family,” she said.

The group encouraged her to pursue her dream of studying nursing after seeing the devastation of the pandemic, which claimed the lives of many of her relatives, here and in the Philippines.

Together, the American Federation of Teachers, which represents college faculty around the country has worked with Believe in Students to invest in and expand the FAST Fund. This fall, AFT committed a landmark $100,000 investment to support 14 existing FAST Funds and establish five new funds at union-affiliated two- and four-year colleges.

We know professors and instructors are committed to their students, and we are excited to invite more folks to participate in the Fund, as it gives them a direct way to connect students to the resources they need. And the FAST Funds have the added benefit of engaging faculty members more fully with their unions, as advocates for students working to finish their degrees. It’s a model we hope to replicate to keep students in school and help them thrive.

As for Manla, she is beginning to see how her success in school can benefit her son, Nathaniel. He likes to play with her stethoscope, she said.

“He says, ‘Can I listen to your heart? Can I take your temperature? Because I’m going to be a nurse too!’”

Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Traci Kirtley is the executive director of Believe in Students.

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#RealCollege students, presidents, educators, and more will lend their voices here with support from The Hope Center and Believe in Students.

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