As a college administrator, Muzamba Sibajene has met more than her share of struggling students. Some are so financially strapped, she said, that even one setback — a car breaks down, a child gets sick — can force them to drop out of school.
So when she heard that one student at her school, Alexandria Technical and Community College, lost his home and was sleeping in his car, she tracked him down at a Walmart parking lot — and changed his life.
Sibajene dipped into a special emergency fund at the school to help the student find a place to stay and pay his first month’s rent. As a result, he not only stayed in college, she said, “he graduated and he’s now a police officer.”
Starting this year, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education is launching its own emergency fund program for students, inspired in part by Alexandria’s success.
Such grants, which typically cover a few hundred dollars for one-time emergencies, have become increasingly popular as a way to stem the dropout rates of low-income students, said Larry Pogemiller, Minnesota’s higher education commissioner. They’re designed, he said, to “help students out and dig them out of holes” so they can stay the course.
At many schools, like Alexandria, the emergency funds have come from private donations or foundations. But this spring, in a rare show of bipartisanship, Republican and DFL lawmakers rallied behind a proposal by Gov. Mark Dayton to start a statewide program.
They set aside $175,000 a year, for the next two years, to provide matching funds to help colleges offer such emergency grants.
“There was no resistance,” said Pogemiller. “Every legislator who has heard about this goes, ‘Yep, I know a kid who could use this.’ ”
In Alexandria, school officials started awarding the grants in 2014, thanks to a $400,000 gift from the Otto Bremer Trust.
They began by asking students what was stopping them from completing their degrees.
“It wasn’t the academics,” said Ross Santell, vice president for academic and student affairs. “It’s just life issues that get in the way.”
In the next two years, 236 Alexandria students received grants, averaging about $1,500 apiece, for expenses ranging from car repairs to housing emergencies.
In one case, said Sibajene, who oversees the program, the extra money helped a young woman escape an abusive relationship and remain in school.
“There’s literally 236 of those stories where we were able to make a difference,” she said.
Bobbie Hauser, a 27-year-old student at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, said she almost dropped out last fall when she fell behind on her children’s day care bill. But she was able to cover the costs with a $460 emergency grant from her school’s program, known as RAK, for Random Acts of Kindness. The extra money, she said, made “a really big difference. I haven’t fallen behind since.”
Taylor Dircz, 20, who is studying to be a medical assistant at South Central College in North Mankato, said she started to panic when the steering went out on her 2001 Chevy. “I was scared — how am I going to get to school?” she said. A $490 check from what her school calls its Lifesaver program covered the bill. The grant “basically took all the worry off my shoulders,” she said. “It is a lifesaver.”
Jayne Dinse, director of admissions and financial aid at South Central, said the grants have been used to cover spiking utility bills during a harsh winter, broken eyeglasses and a stolen bicycle.
“One of the things that we stress is that we’re looking at that unforeseen emergency,” she said. But school counselors also advise students on other resources, such as food shelves, for ongoing financial challenges.
The students, meanwhile, have been endlessly grateful. One, Dinse said, “made me a little plaque that hangs in my office that says ‘Jayne, because of you, I didn’t give up.’ ”
South Central has been awarding the grants since 2016 with funds from the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation, which has supported similar programs at dozens of colleges in the Upper Midwest.
Many of these students already receive large amounts of financial aid, including federal and state grants, to help with tuition and living expenses. But supporters say these small emergency grants serve a different purpose.
“You just help them get through a rough patch and students will not stop out,” said Lisa Mohr, who runs the emergency grant program at Rochester Community and Technical College. And that in turn can boost graduation rates, she said. “Often, students who drop out don’t come back.”
Not everyone who seeks a grant gets one, officials said. Applicants have to provide proof of the expense, and it has to be a true emergency. “We don’t pay people’s cellphone bills or internet or their TV cable,” said Mohr. “We don’t do the wants … we focus on the needs.”
The new state funding probably won’t go very far in meeting the demand, said Pogemiller, the higher education commissioner. But he said he hopes it will encourage more schools to join in and raise funds on their own.
In Alexandria, meanwhile, college officials are looking for new ways to fund the grants now that the original gift has run out. But Sibajene has no doubt that the investment, for these students, is worth it.
“The money that we gave them didn’t fix their lives,” she said. “But [it] definitely gave them a psychological push to believe that they can do this.”