When Government and Colleges Come Up Short Meeting Student Needs, Faculty Unions Step Up

By: Michael Rosen & Charlie Dee, MATC Local 212 FAST Fund

This was originally posted in the Wisconsin Examiner and requested to be shared here as well.

Where can students turn for help with basic survival needs when their colleges and government programs fail them in a crisis? At a growing number of campuses, students are getting aid from the same people they turn to for classroom help: their professors.

Halima is a Somalia-born dental technician student at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), Wisconsin’s largest two-year college. When her classes all went online during the COVID-19 pandemic, she was desperate for help because she could no longer access the computer lab on campus. Her professor directed her to the faculty union and its emergency non-profit, the Local 212 MATC FAST Fund. In 48 hours, it provided her with a laptop so she could pursue her education remotely while caring for her infant twin boys.

Most of her first five years of life were spent in a refugee camp in Kenya where her family escaped from a brutal civil war, so Halima was no stranger to tough times. However, this past year she faced another crisis of domestic violence and desperately needed safe housing for her small family.

Once again, the FAST Fund stepped up and referred her to a partner agency that had received federal American Rescue Plan housing assistance funding. It provided her with the first month’s rent as well as a security deposit for an apartment, and a FAST Fund supporter contributed household items to help settle her family.

Halima and her sons are now safe, she’s able to focus on her studies and will soon graduate to a waiting job.

Many Students are Like Halima

U.S. colleges are filled with hundreds of thousands of Halimas: students struggling to stay in classes and better their lives despite hunger, housing insecurity, and myriad economic hardships that upper-middle-class students never experience. State and federal safety nets as well as college programs fall far short of meeting their needs, and some relief programs are mired in so much bureaucratic red tape that they frustrate more than help students in crisis.

Federal Pell grants for poor students used to cover 100% of tuition and living expenses at two-year colleges; now the grants barely cover 60%. How do students make up that 40%? They pile on more debt, add another minimum-wage, part-time job or simply drop out.

Faculty and Students Together (FAST)

The FAST Fund is a faculty-led, non-profit organization that provides MATC students experiencing economic challenges with quick financial assistance. It began in 2016 in recognition by MATC’s faculty union, American Federation of Teachers Local 212, that basic-needs insecurity was undermining the ability of MATC students to complete their studies.

Students who were hungry, homeless, threatened with eviction or a utility cut-off, or who could not afford textbooks or glasses simply couldn’t focus on their studies. This was confirmed by research on the struggles of Milwaukee’s working-class students conducted by Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab and the University of Wisconsin’s HOPE Lab.

In response to her research, Dr. Goldrick-Rab started a non-profit, Believe in Students, that provided the Local 212 MATC FAST Fund with a $5,000 start-up grant. An additional $2,500 was raised locally. In its first year of operation (2016–2017) the FAST Fund pilot assisted 26 students. Last year it served 443 students, 93% of whom are continuing their college education or have graduated.

The fund is staffed by retired union-member volunteers and one current faculty member. The faculty union provides an office and limited administrative support. MATC faculty, staff, retirees and graduates have been a reliable and consistent source of funding. As word about the fund has spread, donations from community members have increased substantially. In 2020–2021 it distributed $144,878 in emergency help to students and will provide over $300,000 in aid this year.

This model is spreading. There are now faculty-led FAST emergency funds on over 30 campuses around the country.

Public Policy Must Change

Despite this growth, FAST Fund leaders recognize that while their assistance is crucial to the students it helps, it cannot solve every student’s basic-needs insecurity. Therefore, its mission statement recognizes a second purpose: to promote college and public policies that help students stay enrolled and achieve academic success.

For example, when the federal government began allocating higher-education funding during the pandemic, the FAST Fund partnered with Believe in Students, the Wisconsin Technical College System, and other national organizations to successfully lobby Congress to change its allocation formula for aid. Previously the federal government had awarded privileged colleges like the University of Wisconsin 43% higher payments per student than working-class colleges like MATC where students have much more need.

Then, in May 2021, the FAST Fund initiated a campaign urging MATC to use its American Rescue Plan dollars to pay students’ MATC debts accrued during the pandemic. It was successful again, and at the end of July MATC announced that it would forgive $6.75 million in debts for students who had attended during the pandemic.

Earlier, the MATC administration had decided to deduct from COVID-19 emergency aid the value of Chromebooks it had given students to cope with the pandemic. What seemed logical to a bureaucrat outraged professors who actually knew the students personally. Eventually, the administration reversed its decision at the FAST Fund’s urging.

Central to the FAST Fund’s mission and success is its recognition that faculty are the college employees who have the most consistent and direct contact with students. They are often the people to whom students feel most connected. Faculty members are usually the first to notice when a student is in crisis. Conversely, students are often most comfortable confiding in their instructors with whom they have bonded more than with other college staff.

Administrators Need to Accept Faculty Leadership

Because of their closeness to students, faculty are capable of developing common-sense policies that often elude administrators. For example, the MATC Student Resource Center was on the eighth floor of an administrative building with no classrooms that had little student traffic, so students reported to faculty that they didn’t know it existed or felt conspicuous and potentially stigmatized going there and asking for help. In response, Local 212 urged the college administration to make the Resource Center central to student experience. It took three years, but the administration finally moved the office to a central location in the student union.

This student-faculty relationship is the driving force in the growth of faculty-led emergency funds. Additionally, such funds do not deduct the value of their assistance from a student’s federal financial aid nor impose other restrictions, unlike many institutional emergency funds. As a result, DACA students and those who have exhausted their financial aid eligibility are eligible for FAST Fund assistance.

Local 212’s parent union, The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), headquartered in Washington DC, recognizes this. As a result, the national union provided Believe in Students with a $100,000 grant this year to expand the number of faculty-led emergency funds and provide matching dollars to existing funds. AFT supports the FAST Fund because it recognizes the basic needs challenges experienced by its members’ students and is committed to their success.

A valuable secondary objective in light of the national assault on public sector unions is that FAST Fund operations promote and help build faculty unions because faculty appreciate that their union is playing a leading role in enabling student success.

As recognition of the crisis in meeting college students’ basic needs grows, faculty-lead emergency funds are helping lead the way in exposing the nation’s failure to provide affordable, quality, post-secondary education, in assisting students, and in working for student-friendly policy changes.

Michael Rosen (Economics) and Charlie Dee (American Studies) are retired MATC faculty members and leaders of AFT Local 212. Rosen was the founder of the FAST Fund at MATC and Dee recently joined the Board of Directors.

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