When Karli Hinman enrolled at Stony Brook University in fall 2018, she knew her family couldn’t help her pay to continue her education. And during her first two years of college, she didn’t have much trouble affording her in-state tuition, thanks to financial aid and scholarships.
But during her junior year, the expenses started to add up. Hinman happened to move into an apartment-style dorm on campus that cost her more than her previous residence halls had. As she made progress toward her major, chemistry, and needed fewer courses directly related to that degree, the state grant she relied on covered fewer of her credit hours, leaving her with thousands more dollars to pay.
Hinman took a campus job serving food and working the cash register in a dining hall to help make up the difference. Still, she found herself unable to fully pay what she owed to the university. That meant she couldn’t sign up for courses for the upcoming semester.
She felt stuck.
“I talked to financial aid on campus so many times,” Hinman says. “They’re not all that helpful, but I was just hoping maybe they would reach out to me and let me know that they found something, or there would be a new scholarship listed on the campus website I could apply for, but nothing really turned up.”
Then one day, Hinman received a phone call. It came from Amanda Flanagan. Her official role at Stony Brook is as an administrator in the university’s mechanical engineering department, but she also serves as site leader for the United University Professions FAST Fund at Stony Brook, a program that provides students with small sums of money to help them through emergencies that could derail their studies.
“I don’t remember exactly how she found me,” Hinman says of Flanagan. “She called me and told me about the FAST Fund and asked if it would be something I was interested in applying for. Of course I said yes.”
Hinman applied. Her need exceeded what the FAST Fund could cover. But Flanagan was not deterred. She helped Hinman find another way to pay the outstanding balance.
And when Hinman later needed help affording an overdue visit to the dentist, the FAST Fund helped to pay that bill.
“I was honestly surprised, but I was also really excited because I needed the help. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to get it,” says Hinman, who recently graduated. “It was honestly pretty awesome.”
As of fall 2022, Stony Brook is one of 33 higher ed institutions where students can apply for money through a local FAST Fund to help cover an education expense or address a basic life need. Started as a pilot program at just a few colleges in 2016, the model is proliferating as professors and staff across the country realize that many of their students need gift certificates to local grocery stores in order to eat, or train tickets and gas money to make it to class, or $200 to pay for required health care licensing exams at the end of senior year.
“We’re in the thick of it with the students. We see what they’re going through,” Flanagan says of college faculty and staff. “A lot of us were in that situation at one point or another.”
The funds, which are based at campuses but operate independently of colleges and institutional emergency aid programs, have collectively distributed more than $1 million in aid, according to Traci Kirtley, executive director of Believe in Students, the nonprofit that coordinates the network of FAST Funds. A small study of one of the longest-running funds found that it’s an effective way to keep students enrolled in college.
Kirtley credits the spread of the model in part to the efforts of educator unions. Even as FAST Funds help to fill gaps in social services today, labor leaders think that in the future, the movement has the potential to organize faculty and staff around advocacy for campus policies that actually close those gaps for low-income students and educators.
“What if you were not just disseminating aid to students?” Kirtley says. “What if, as faculty, you were leveraging the power that you have to identify and push for solutions, changes in how the system operates?”
High Need, High Speed
Many students are hard-pressed to pay their college tuition bills and afford basic necessities like shelter, food, child care, health care and transportation. Recent high inflation has increased the strain for some. And certain groups of students tend to be especially affected by these financial barriers. For example, more than a third of Black students enrolled at community colleges experience poverty, as do 28 percent of Latino students and 18 percent of white students, according to a recent report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Some students are able to access emergency aid dollars through programs run by their colleges or by third-party vendors that partner with higher ed institutions. When the Center for Community College Student Engagement surveyed more than 80,000 students at community colleges in 2021, it found that 44 percent of students who needed help getting food and 21 percent who needed help finding affordable shelter said that their colleges provided them with that kind of assistance. But leaders of campus FAST Funds argue that “official” programs typically move too slowly or require students to jump through too many hoops to be truly useful in urgent situations.
Instead, when faculty and staff, or their unions, manage their own independent emergency aid funds with money raised through private donations or grants, Flanagan says, “it cuts out all that bureaucracy and the red tape we would find if we went through official university channels.”
When students reach out with a request — often by filling out a simple Google form — FAST Fund leaders say they prioritize a response within hours or days and don’t worry much about seeking “proof” that the need is real. The timely process can be useful to students who encounter surprise disruptions to their best-laid college plans.
That was the case for Givenchy Ayisi-Boahene, who recently graduated from Stony Brook. While taking college courses, she also worked as an emergency room technician to help support her father and sister as well as to cover her own education costs. Then she was injured, impeding her ability to work long hours on her feet at her job. She found herself unable to pay for her courses.
Because the injury happened in the middle of the semester, Ayisi-Boahene realized it was too late in the term for her to apply to most scholarships. She considered taking a medical leave from her studies. But her program, respiratory therapy, operates through a cohort system, meaning that missing even a few weeks could have set Ayisi-Boahene’s progress back a whole year until the next cohort arrived at the module where she left off.
“It did feel very desperate,” she says. “In my last year — wow I made it this far — this unexpected thing happened, and I’m going to have to push it back another year.”
Then Ayisi-Boahene contacted her university counselor to ask for help, and she was referred to the Stony Brook FAST Fund. She applied, and her request was approved within days.
“It was very easy, compared to other types of scholarship I have applied to,” Ayisi-Boahene says. “It was intimate. They actually spoke to you, found out more about you, followed up with you as well.”
The money mattered, but Ayisi-Boahene also says she appreciated the fact that she felt genuine care from the FAST Fund leaders. And when she realized that she needed help paying for a licensing exam at the end of her college career in order to secure a job in respiratory therapy, the fund supported her financially again.
“The FAST Fund did follow me after I graduated,” Ayisi-Boahene says. “I feel like I could reach out to them if I needed someone to speak to.”
Learning Conditions as Working Conditions
FAST Funds are driven both by student need and by the concerns of college faculty and staff.
Elizabeth Franczyk teaches Spanish at Milwaukee Area Technical College. She also serves as one of two paid staff members for the college’s FAST Fund. One of the first established, it is run by the faculty union AFT Local 212 and funded in part through an endowment created by the gift of the family of a college staff member who died. Franczyk joined the effort alongside other instructors and staff because, she says, “we more than anybody want our students to succeed.”
For example, last semester, one of Franczyk’s best students in introductory Spanish was “crushing it,” she says, doing so well that the instructor could imagine the student going on to start a successful career using the foreign language. Yet the student missed many days of class because she did not have enough money for gas to get to campus and because of the demands of her job at Amazon.
So Franczyk helped the student get gas cards through the FAST Fund.
“I know what’s going on with her. I’m not financial aid seeing this crappy GPA; I know what’s up,” Franczyk says. “I am going to do everything in my power to help her so that she can stay in school.”
In other words, college staff and professors have become so invested in this movement because they witness students’ struggles firsthand, day after day — unlike some higher ed administrators who, Franczyk says, don’t interact as much with students.
For some educators, addressing the basic needs they know students have feels like a practical way to improve teaching and learning.
“One leader said, ‘I recognize our students’ learning conditions are our working conditions,’” Kirtley says. “We need students who have everything they need to be able to learn so that we can teach.”
Then there are educators whose sense of solidarity with low-income students stems from shared personal experiences. Flanagan thinks back to when she was in college and once had to call her grandparents to ask for money to pay for gas to get to an internship.
“I remember how tough it was every semester to buy textbooks,” she says. “Do I really need this one?”
And for some instructors, financial hardship is not confined to memory.
“A lot of adjuncts are facing these same issues,” Kirtley says. “One of the very first FAST Fund leaders ran into a student in line at the food pantry, and that’s how their connection started.”
From Aid to Advocacy
Seven years after the movement began, FAST Funds are starting to measure their results.
In 2021, the fund at Milwaukee Area Technical College commissioned a researcher to conduct a survey of all 488 students who applied for emergency aid in the 2020-2021 academic year, to determine who they were, what needs they had, and what their experience was like accessing aid.
About 80 percent of the students served that year were African American. Of the people who responded to the survey, 80 percent were women, the average age was 32, and nearly all worked full time or part time or were looking for work.
A third of respondents said they learned about the FAST Fund from an instructor and another fifth cited a staff member, while 17 percent said they learned about it through the college’s own emergency aid program. The process of applying felt “easy” to 62 percent of respondents and “quick” to 44 percent.
Nearly half of respondents said they used the financial support they received to pay for rent, while more than a third used it to pay for books. Other top uses were for tuition (29 percent) and utility bills (29 percent).
The study found that 93 percent of those who applied for support through the FAST Fund were continuing their education, had graduated or had transferred to another higher ed institution. Its author concluded that “the FAST Fund is highly effective in meeting its objective of just-in-time financial support designed to keep students enrolled.”
“I describe us as a bridge, almost,” Franczyk says. “A bridge to get back on track.”
Yet the researcher also described the program as a “band aid.” And while outside observers who advocate on behalf of low-income students laud this concept, some say it is necessary but not sufficient.
“I think it’s a great philanthropy initiative that allows a rapid response,” says Justin Nalley, a senior policy analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Yet, he adds, “something like that is supplemental. Things need to be addressed at a more systemic and public policy level.”
That kind of change is underway in some parts of higher ed. For example, the 10 institutions in the University of California system have established basic needs centers on their campuses. And the federal government now gives grants to colleges to support efforts that “take a systemic approach to improving outcomes for underserved students” by addressing their basic needs for food, housing, transportation, health care, child care and technology. In January, the government made 14 awards totalling more than $13 million.
Some FAST Fund leaders say systemic change is on their agenda, too.
Fund leaders are connected through a network organized by the nonprofit Believe in Students, which provides a small start-up grant to each as well as communications, fundraising and administrative support. (The nonprofit’s founder, Sara Goldrick-Rab, who is still on the board, resigned in summer 2022 as founding president of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, and from her professorship at Temple, after the university launched an investigation into her leadership.)
New efforts underway are prompting fund leaders to collaborate more deliberately to push beyond just giving out money. Faculty, staff and students at six colleges in Chicago and Milwaukee have formed a consortium of FAST Funds for the Great Lakes region, supported by a $150,000 grant from the American Federation of Teachers union. The money will help pay student and faculty ambassadors to educate, organize and advocate regarding basic needs on their respective campuses.
“We’re fighting against precarity so the adjuncts and the students they teach don’t have to live in poverty,” said the federation’s president, Randi Weingarten, during a visit to Milwaukee Area Technical College in September 2022 to announce the grant. “The FAST Fund is part of a strategy to show students how college is an opportunity agent.”
And the very existence of FAST Funds put pressure on colleges to step up their own efforts to better support students, Franczyk says, explaining how leaders of her fund successfully advocated for Milwaukee Area Technical College to loosen the requirements on its own institutional aid program so that more students would be eligible to apply.
Franczyk says she tries to work as a “tag team” with the person who runs her college’s official aid program. Still, she acknowledges, “colleges sometimes feel as though FAST Funds step on their toes a little bit.”
Yet it doesn’t have to be that way, she adds. Her challenge to colleges?
“Put me out of a job,” she says. “Make the institutional changes at the college so that students are finding themselves in these situations a lot less.”