As the price of higher education in the United States continues to rise, paying for it is an increasingly formidable challenge, especially for students from low-income backgrounds. But even when these students secure loans or scholarships for tuition, they’re vulnerable. An estimated three million college students drop out each year due to a relatively small but time-critical financial crisis, such as a car that needs repair.
Research shows that one-time emergency financial aid payments of a mere $1,500 or less can bridge such crises, enabling these students to stay in school — and ultimately graduate. Indeed, 70 percent of US colleges and universities offer some form of emergency financial aid. However, few have coherent programs for getting it to the students who need it, when they need it.
To change this, Reos Partners has convened the Emergency Aid Lab (EAL). Lab participants — administrators, educators, counselors, students, and other partners from higher education— are collaborating to experiment with and refine multiple initiatives. The end product will be a practitioner tested, adaptable “playbook” for implementing a comprehensive, integrated emergency aid programme on any campus. Importantly, it will encompass both logistical and social challenges. The Emergency Aid Lab will also build the capacity of a growing network of individuals to successfully deploy the collaborative tools and approaches outlined in the playbook.
The ultimate goal is a “new normal” in which no student needs to drop out because they don’t have $500 or $1,000 dollars on hand to bridge an unexpected financial need.
Lab members are encouraged by the progress so far. Between its Community of Practice and its Innovation Cohort of five colleges and universities, the lab pitched 32 initiatives for its first design cycle. “It feels like the needle really is moving,” said one participant. “I have a better picture of how daunting it is, but a clear picture of what to do.”
The Emergency Aid Lab is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) as part of their Postsecondary Success programme. Driven by the recognition that higher education is an engine of social mobility and economic growth, the programme seeks to increase college completion rates for students from low-income backgrounds.
Knowing that low-income students were dropping out due to small, unexpected financial setbacks, BMGF saw a clear opportunity to have a measurable impact on completion rates and approached Reos Partners to convene the EAL.
The two-year lab builds on nationwide research by NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education) on the current use and management of emergency aid at colleges and universities. As the lab develops its playbook of best practices, NASPA will play an important role in disseminating the findings.
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:
Historical legacy. Many existing 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 own campuses was lacking, in addition to between campuses.
Institutional focus. Aid resources tend to be designed around the institution, rather than the student. Reversing this requires building new mental models.
Communication gaps. Students are often unaware that emergency aid even exists.
Normalizing of the problem. It doesn’t even occur to students to seek help from their college or university. There’s a “that’s just the way it is” attitude.
Cultural barriers. Some students come from backgrounds that stigmatize asking for help.
Reos Partners began this project by conducting 20 dialogue interviews with exemplars in the system who were already doing innovative things with emergency aid. In May of 2017, we kicked off the lab with an intensive three-day forum of stakeholders in which we built a shared understanding of the challenges, opportunities, and priorities. In mid-July, we convened the Innovation Cohort teams for a two-and-a-half-day workshop to prototype initiatives. Reos Partners is providing support and facilitation throughout the prototyping and testing process.
The EAL Innovation Cohort
The Innovation Cohort comprises five campuses: University of Washington, Seattle; University of Washington, Tacoma; Lorain County Community College, Ohio; Austin Community College, Texas; and Florida International University. They are receiving support to fast-track design, testing and implementation of emergency aid innovations on their campuses.
The EAL Community of Practice
This group of emergency-aid champions is keen to share learnings and continuously refine best practices. It includes forward-thinking institutions, key stakeholders, and experts in emergency aid and innovation.
Service design methodologies
New to our lab approach is the incorporation of service design methodologies more common to the business world, including “customer journey mapping.” The goal is to move away from an institution-centered approach, which has been the unexamined norm, to a deliberately student-centered one. By interviewing student members and walking through real-life examples, the lab teams explored students’ emotional experiences as they live 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 work better.
As measured by the initiatives now underway, the lab is making rapid progress toward an emergency financial aid playbook. At the May 2017 forum, the Community of Practice pitched 5 initiatives, now underway. The 27 initiatives pitched by the Innovation Cohort in July are now being tested and iterated with the support of Reos Partners. In November, lab members will meet again to share their progress and further iterate their initiatives.
This bounty of initiatives reflects the group’s shift in thinking to an experimental approach that’s uncommon in the academic world. Prototyping an idea and testing it, getting feedback early and often instead of investing a lot of time and resources only to find out that it doesn’t work — this frees everyone to innovate. “I’m recognizing that there’s such an opportunity with the methodology around problem solving,” said one participant. “I’m feeling a great responsibility for taking it back and making it work with our team.”
Among the areas that the team’s initiatives are exploring:
Landscape analysis. Through surveys and other research, most EAL participants are taking a deep dive into the current reality on their campuses.
Communications. What are the best ways to increase awareness among students that emergency aid is there if they need it?
Stigma. Seeking help is taboo in some communities and cultures. How can we better understand the cultural context of students so that strengths can be leveraged and the barriers around seeking help are addressed?
Online applications. Too often, students have to tell their story several times, to various offices around campus. What would a streamlined online application process look like? In what ways might automated processes be a hindrance?
First generation students 101. One campus is creating a workshop that will educate staff about the challenges particular to first-generation college students. What do those implementing aid programmes need to know? What skills do they need?