On One Campus, Students Find Funds for Peers in Need

Emory U.

Stephen Ratner (left) and Jordan Stein, Emory U. seniors, spent a year setting up a grant program to help students facing financial emergencies. They began making grants this fall—a total of $3,700 to 10 students.
December 14, 2011

Jarquisha Hollings can count on generous financial aid at Emory University, but it doesn't cover everything, especially when life takes unexpected turns. Her mother and stepfather have both been out of work and recently lost their home. She reached a point this semester, she says, where the balance of her meal plan was $0.

Close friends bought meals for Ms. Hollings, a junior: "They were taking care of me," she says. But she was tired of asking for favors and planned to approach the financial-aid office about an emergency loan. Then Ms. Hollings learned about a new program, the peer-organized "Student Hardship Fund," designed to help students in circumstances like hers.

Emory, like a few dozen other colleges, has moved to reduce its students' debt, meeting financial need without loans for students whose families make up to $50,000, and limiting loans for students with family incomes of up to $100,000. But even so, some students struggle financially, especially when faced with emergency situations.

So two Emory seniors, Stephen Ratner and Jordan Stein, started the hardship fund. Students in need apply for a grant of up to $500, and a committee of students, faculty, and staff reviews applications and interviews students, if they would like.

Ms. Hollings was approved for the full $500, which she used to buy groceries and winter clothes. "This grant makes a lot of things possible," she says. Last year, when her mother's unemployment ran out, she had to withdraw temporarily from the university. Without the grant, she says, she might have found herself in that situation again.

The idea for the hardship fund came from the student government, whose former president suggested it, during the economic downturn, in a report. Mr. Ratner read the report, and he and Mr. Stein also knew that university staff members had created a hardship fund to help one another. Mr. Ratner, a political-science major, became more aware of the challenges facing some of his peers through a class project about socioeconomic diversity on campus. He was struck by the toll an unexpected hardship could take on a student's whole college experience. "In these situations," he says, "$500 can go a long way."

The two students spent about a year setting up their program, with start-up money from the undergraduate and graduate student governments, as well as some university officials, and began making grants this fall—a total of $3,700 to 10 students. To get money into students' hands, they have partnered with Emory's financial-aid office: The grants are added to financial-aid awards, and funds come through students' university accounts. But the program was set up with a key difference from other aid: When students get a hardship grant, the award goes directly to them, even if they owe a balance to the university.

Dean Bentley, the financial-aid director, sees the program as separate from the normal aid process, but he wanted the two to be well-integrated. The optional interview concerned him, he says—after all, conversations about a student's personal financial details are normally limited to his staff. But that feature was important to Mr. Ratner and Mr. Stein, and Mr. Bentley wanted to hew closely to their vision. The program might be personal enough, he says, to inspire recipients to give back to the next generation of students after they graduate.

A financial-aid adviser, Delicia Lucky, is a nonvoting member of the hardship-fund committee, as are Mr. Ratner and Mr. Stein. Ms. Lucky reviews students' financial situations and explains them to committee members. They have approved 10 of 14 applications so far.

Going before the committee was intimidating, says Crystal Gayle, a senior whose mother has been ill and living in a shelter. But faced with the expense of applying to graduate school and the need to support herself between semesters, Ms. Gayle, who didn't think the interview was optional, decided to go for it.

Ms. Gayle also got $500, which was a big help, she says, though it didn't meet all of her needs. She also appreciated the list of other campus resources the committee gave her. The application process was emotionally difficult, Ms. Gayle says, but it was well worth it.

For now the fund is small, with about $3,200 left, but Mr. Ratner and Mr. Stein have big ambitions. They plan to work with the development office on fund raising next semester. They're going to sell T-shirts to help raise money, and awareness. And they hope the program will continue long after they graduate—and eventually spread to other colleges.