Ensuring that low-income, first-generation, and minority students are able to complete college is an increasingly formidable challenge. Financial aid, scholarships, and grants are insufficient when these students face crises like unanticipated medical bills, or housing or transportation emergencies. It is shocking that only 9 percent of students from the bottom quartile of family income will earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared with 77 percent of students from the top family quartile.
Research shows that one-time emergency financial aid payments of $1,000 or less can bridge such crises, enabling students to stay in school — and ultimately graduate. And, 70 percent of US colleges and universities offer some form of emergency financial aid. Few of these institutions, though, have structured programs and processes for getting emergency aid to the students who need it, when they need it.
To change this, Reos Partners convened the Emergency Aid Lab (EAL) in early 2017. 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 digital “playbook” of practitioner-tested guidance that will enable users to move from a set of disconnected, ad-hoc emergency aid activities to a formal, integrated emergency aid programme on any campus. Social learning will be central in the playbook, allowing users to share ideas and collaborate with peers on campus, across a region, and beyond.The EAL is also building 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 drops out because they don’t have $500 or $1,000 dollars on hand to bridge an unanticipated financial need.
Lab members are excited about the progress they have made. Between its Community of Practice and its Innovation Cohort of five colleges and universities, lab participants worked on 59 initiatives during the lab’s first two design cycles. The initiatives range from highly customized triage for students with emergency aid requests to training advisors and front-line staff. The initiatives focus on engaging faculty, communicating more effectively, and ensuring that websites are more responsive to students.
The EAL is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 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 and first-generation backgrounds.
Knowing that low-income students were dropping out due to small, unexpected financial setbacks, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 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 and several strategic partnerships with higher education focused organizations like 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 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. Shifting 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 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.”
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 familiar with a range of emergency needs presented by college students and who were already doing innovative things with 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, we convened the Innovation Cohort teams for a two-and-a-half-day workshop to support teams in adopting a student-centered approach and begin to identify initiatives to prototype on campus. In November 2017, a second forum brought campuses and strategic partners together to focus on the key topics and opportunities for marshalling a systemic response to emergency aid. The third forum in April 2018 identified and advanced synergies from work underway by the innovation cohorts and community of practice workstream groups, and laid the groundwork for the final EAL design cycle.
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 exemplars in emergency aid and innovation.
Student-centric service design methodologies
Our lab approach has included 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 assumed norm, to a deliberately student-centered one. By interviewing students and walking through real-life examples, the lab teams explored students’ emotional 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 work better.
As measured by the initiatives now underway, the lab is making rapid progress toward an emergency financial aid playbook. 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 the idea 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.”
The following are some of the key initiatives and questions being explored by EAL teams:
Landscape analysis. Through surveys and other research, EAL campus participants took the time to understand the current EA landscape on their campuses from multiple perspectives. How are funds being disseminated? Who is involved in dispersing funds, using what criteria? And, how are students currently accessing these funds?
Communications. What are the best ways to increase awareness among students that emergency aid is there if they need it? What is the best way to engage faculty?
Stigma. How can we better understand the cultural context of students so that strengths can be leveraged and 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 created a workshop that illustrated the challenges particular to first-generation college students. What do those implementing aid programmes need to know about student needs? What skills do they need to best respond to students in need of support?
Funding. Many campuses discovered small sources of emergency funds being allocated unsystematically. Others have initiatives that focus on growing the resources available for emergency aid. What resources are needed to address student needs, and how can these resources be secured and best deployed?
Policy opportunities and barriers. Work is underway to identify local, institutional, state and federal policies that affect getting funds to students when they most need them. What policies on campus are positively supporting students getting the aid they need, and what policies might be deterrents?