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Emergency Aid Lab: co-creating the future of emergency financial aid

Reos Partners
November, 2017


Learn how Reos Partners is helping to transform the US education system by co-creating the future of financial aid with the Emergency Aid Lab.


The U.S. education system is facing a crisis. By 2025, it is estimated that two-thirds of all jobs will require education beyond high school – and the U.S. is on track to face a shortfall of 11 million skilled workers to fill these jobs. Contributing to this problem is the skyrocketing cost of education, which has increased by 1000% over the past several decades. For even those from middle class backgrounds, it is increasingly challenging to afford college and for many students, a small, unexpected expense – a medical bill, car breakdown, or increase in child care costs – that stretches their budget can lead to them dropping out. An estimated 3 million students face such financial crises each year and leave school over an expense of less than $1,000. With at least one-third of all students saying that they don’t have $500 on hand for emergencies, the issue of how to support students through these financial crises has gotten the attention of higher education leaders across the country.

Recent research data suggests that 70 percent of institutions offer some form of emergency aid, but support is typically disseminated on a case by case basis. Few institutions have a robust program that offers the potential for maximum impact on student retention and completion. To address this challenge, Reos Partners convened the Emergency Aid Lab (EAL) in early 2017. EAL participants — financial aid and student services administrators, faculty, counselors, students, and other partners from higher education— collaborated over an 18-month period to determine how to best structure an emergency aid program on campus.

The end product of the EAL is the Roadmap to Effective Emergency Aid, a program that guides higher education leaders in transforming informal emergency aid efforts into a comprehensive programme that increases student success. The program is delivered through an interactive, on-line course; in-person workshops led by Reos Partners; and coaching. The Roadmap integrates guidance from the more than 100 people who participated in the EAL with Reos Partners’ expertise in helping stakeholders collaborate to drive impact on complex challenges. The Roadmap is in a testing phase and will be available in early 2020.

Participants in the Roadmap:

  • Develop an overview of the current state of EA on their campus
  • Assess the gap between the current state and their vision of an effective program
  • Design a portfolio of work to bridge the gap
  • Work in a systemic, collaborative, and experimental way to transform the delivery of EA on their campus

The Roadmap addresses in-depth five critical pathways, or levers, for enhancing emergency aid programme results:

  • Effective and efficient response to student requests
  • Communications and awareness
  • Data and assessment
  • Sustainable resources and funding for the programme
  • Policy review (to address policies that may be inadvertently affecting student success)


“This [process] is radically different.”
- Francisco Valines, Financial Aid, Florida International University

For more information on the Roadmap, read this article.


The EAL has been supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of their Postsecondary Success programme. The foundation saw a clear opportunity to have a measurable impact on completion rates and approached Reos Partners to convene the EAL.

The lab built on nationwide research and several strategic partnerships with higher education-focused organizations, such as NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education), NASFAA (National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators), Single Stop, and Scholarship America.


As described earlier, 70 percent of higher education institutions in the United States offer some level of emergency aid, yet few have comprehensive programmes. Some barriers identified by the lab team:

An Ad-Hoc Response to Emergency Aid. Many emergency aid programmes started in an ad-hoc way, for example with faculty members collecting a few hundred dollars for a student in need.

Silos on campus. Participants said that collaboration across their campuses — in addition to between campuses — was lacking.

Institutional focus. Aid resources tend to be designed around the institution, rather than the student.

Communication gaps. Students are often unaware that emergency aid even exists.

Normalizing the problem. It doesn’t even occur to some students to seek help from their college or university. There’s a “that’s just the way it is” perspective and/or a view that “the institution does not care about me.”


Reos Partners began this project by conducting 20 dialogue interviews with exemplars in the system who were familiar with a range of emergency needs presented by college students and who were already innovating on the delivery of emergency aid. In May 2017, we kicked off the lab with an intensive three-day forum of stakeholders during which we built a shared understanding of the challenges, opportunities, and priorities. In mid-July of that year, we convened the Innovation Cohort teams – five campuses that served as the hub of the lab — for a two-and-a-half-day workshop to support teams in adopting a student-centered approach and applying an equity and inclusion lens to the development of their programs.

“Like other campuses, we are wrestling with questions about inclusion and equity – these are core issues for access institutions. The EAL project is a place where we were able to do something actionable. We can’t quickly change the issues happening in our world, but this project gave us a chance to come together as students, faculty, and administration to make a difference on a topic that is front and center to our institutional identity.”

- Kathleen Farrell, Student Planning and Administration, University of Washington-Tacoma

At the July meeting, teams also began identifying initiatives to prototype on campus. Prototyping – testing an idea and getting feedback early and often instead of investing a lot time and resources only to find out that the idea doesn’t work – was central to the work of the lab. This experimental approach is uncommon in the academic world and led to rapid progress on innovative solutions.

Two more forums were held to bring together campuses and partners to collaborate on a systemic response to emergency aid, advance progress on solutions, and lay the groundwork for the development of the Roadmap.

Student-centric service design methodologies Our lab approach included service design methodologies more common to the business world, including “customer journey mapping.” The goal was to move away from an institution-centered approach, which has been the assumed norm, to a deliberately student-centered one. By interviewing students and walking through real-life examples, lab teams learned about student experiences as they lived through an emergency. In this way, they stepped into the shoes of students in need and gained new insights on how to design services that are more responsive, effective, and efficient.

The Innovation Cohort
The Innovation Cohort comprised five campuses:

  • Austin Community College, Texas;
  • Florida International University;
  • Lorain County Community College, Ohio;
  • University of Washington, Seattle; and
  • University of Washington, Tacoma.

They received support to fast-track design, test, and implement emergency aid innovations on their campuses. All five now have EA programmes in place and are continuously working to improve their efforts and support student success.

“It used to be the best-kept secret on campus. Now we are telling people about it. We’re teaching people how to discuss it with students. We are empowering faculty. We’re empowering staff. And so the students are coming. Emergency aid is already working.”

- Melissa Curtis, Enrollment Management, Austin Community College

The Community of Practice

This group of emergency aid champions shared learnings and helped refine best practices. It included forward-thinking institutions, key stakeholders, and exemplars in emergency aid and innovation.


Innovation Cohorts are already demonstrating that their efforts to design efficient, coordinated emergency aid programmes are producing strong outcomes:

  • Austin Community College (ACC)’s EA program has yielded a three-fold financial return on investment and EA recipients are returning, semester to semester, at a higher rate than non-recipients.
  • Florida International University has documented that 97 percent of students who utilized some form of emergency aid stayed enrolled or graduated in that semester, or the next semester.
  • Ninety percent of the University of Washington’s 2017-2018 emergency aid recipients enrolled in the following quarter or graduated during the school year. Seventy-eight percent of students responded either “no” or “not sure” when asked if they would have been able to continue their enrollment without EA.

The data from Innovation Cohorts is still coming in, but preliminary results suggest that institutions are making great progress toward a “new normal” in which small, unexpected expenses do not get in the way of students staying in school.

In addition to advancing progress on emergency aid, Innovation Cohort participants report that staff and faculty across the institution are collaborating and innovating in new ways:

“We have made great progress on our EA program because we are collectively committed. It is not solely about the need—that always existed. The difference is that we are working together to leverage change.”

- Kristian Wiles, Retention and Academic Support, University of Washington-Seattle

Reos Partners aims to expand the impact of the Roadmap to Effective Emergency Aid by engaging with another cohort of colleges and universities when the Roadmap is completed in early 2020. The ultimate vision is to make the Roadmap available to all U.S. colleges and universities, helping them remove one significant barrier to student success – and support millions of students in realizing their dreams.

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