Emergency funds available to students with many inconsistencies in distribution

With COVID-19, college students are facing financial hardships more than ever before. On a national level, according to the data from The National Student Clearinghouse, enrollment in four-year colleges is down by almost 6% and in community colleges for whopping 11%. WCU as well is seeing less student enrolment and a decrease in retention rates.

COVID-19 and the fast transition to online impacted many WCU students – some lost their jobs on campus or off when the businesses closed; some who were relying upon on-campus housing lost their homes. During the spring semester, we wanted to see what kind of assistance students had through the university. Many students were pleasantly surprised when they got extra funds to their student accounts as part of the WCU’s $500 HEERF Block Grant, which the FAFSA determines.  Read more about that story here.

We also wanted to see how the university used additional funds to assist students. This turned out to be a bit more challenging story in terms of getting the data and talking with official sources who decide who gets how much funding. We also discovered that not many students knew that there are funds available.

Since it was so challenging to get the university’s data at the end of the semester, we filed a FOIA requesting 2019-2020 data on the distribution of these emergency funds.  It turns out that the Student Emergency Fund is only one out of several funds available. The distribution is handled through a committee composed of associate vice chancellor and dean of students BaShaun Smith and Trina Orr, director of financial aid.

The Student Emergency Fund is a one-time funding award for students who need up to $500.

However, Smith says exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis.

“We try to stick to $500 for requests,” he said in an email. “Students can request any amount of money they desire, but it does not mean it will be granted. Students can request support at any time, but we do take into consideration if they received funding already. We have a limited amount of funding. Students may also request a review of their financial aid package.”

Due to these guidelines, former student Chandler Keller was denied a second disbursement despite her circumstances. She requested funding for the first time in Fall 2019 of around $200 to cover the repair of the car that she used with the brother to get to class and work.

“I did it again in spring semester 2020 because the pandemic happened,” she said. “My brother and I both lost our jobs, but we got denied.”

Committee members review these requests to determine their needs based on financial aid data. If there is proof of need, the process takes approximately three days depending on the time of submission, said Lowell Davis, the former vice chancellor for student success.

“So, if we get this in the morning, we then work with the controller in finance administration to then say that we are going to disburse these funds and that we either need a paper check or we need to put this on the student’s account,” he said via zoom. “If the student has a balance, then this funding will actually go to that balance, so they won’t get any money, it will cover the balance. We have to make sure that the student has zero balance, and if they do, then it will trigger a refund on their account, which then takes three to four days depending on if they have direct deposit or something else.”

However, Keller disputes the response timeframe for both of her applications by saying they took three to four weeks each.

Corey Scroggs, a first-generation senior at WCU, needed assistance fixing his car for his one-hour commute to WCU from Murphy, North Carolina. He says the timeline was fairly quick.

“I would say within a week, maybe two weeks, I had my money,” Scroggs said. “They just put it in my student account and it was basically like a direct deposit when you get a refund.”

Even though her second request was denied, Keller remains grateful that her original $200 request was granted.

“We got to pay off what we owed on our electricity and fill up our gas tank,” she said. “We haven’t been able to fill it for a while and then groceries. We had been eating from what HomeBase had offered, so the staple goods, soups, etc.”

Read more about HomeBase here.

Scroggs was blessed to be granted funds and believes that he would have potentially dropped out without it.

“I have to say there’s a very small percent chance that I could’ve continued taking courses,” he said. “I support myself. I have a lot of friends, of course, which when it came down to it, they probably would’ve helped me out somehow some way, but there’s no way they would have been able to help me every day get to school when I have 8 a.m. classes till 3 p.m.”

In the 2019-2020 academic year, there were 422 applications received. Only 311 were funded for a total of $62,658 in funds given to students in need. Compared to the 2020-2021 academic year, there were 60 applications received. Only 30 were funded for a total of $1,500 in funds received by students.

Many students who applied and received funding did not directly receive it from Student Affairs but other sources. With both school years combined, there were 125 from Faculty Senate, 95 from Student Affairs, 76 from WCU Grant, 23 from Financial Aid, 11 from WCU Need-Based Assistance Fund, nine from Graduate School, one from Summer Supplemental Scholarship and one from a combination of Faculty Senate and WCU Grant.

“The amount most likely decreased due to the availability of other types of funding that were available to students (Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund [HEERF], Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act [CARES], etc.),” said Julie Straus, university program specialist, who works in the Provost’s Office.

Davis described the most common issues for WCU students who apply for funding.

“Most of the time, it’s rent, car repair, and medicine,” he said. “Because we have HOMEBASE, most of the students can go there to get food and toiletries and other things, so we’re mainly looking at medical issues, car repairs, and things like that.”

To receive the award, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Must be taking at least one credit hour.
  • Utilized other resources such as financial aid.
  • Provide proof of need, such as a lease agreement or utility bill.
  • Funds cannot be used for paying WCU or family-related expenses.

Reviewing the funding data through an April 2021 FOIA request, we found several inconsistencies.

One homeless student was declined, but another homeless student was approved. Various declined students listed reasons for need such as rent, food, electric bill, unemployment, mental health, car repairs and even a flooded home. However, one student requested funds for food to feed their dog and snake received $500 from Faculty Senate. Another who listed, “no reason…the country going through a hard time,” received $500 from the Faculty Senate.

Covering both academic years, 87 students were declined funding because they either provided no documentation, already received funding or were deemed ineligible. Fourteen of those 87 were declined and told to apply for HEERF.

“Students were told to apply for HEERF due to the large amount of aid we received from the federal government. i.e., we were trying to save the SEF for DACA, undocumented, and international students who may need funding,” Smith said.

In 2019-2020, 22 students were denied because they did not provide any documentation. That same year, there were more than 30 who did not provide documentation but still received funding. In 2020-2021, four students did not provide documentation but still received funding.

Scroggs was one of those students.

“I just talked to them, and they asked me what was going on and I told them I was in need of money because of my whole car situation and how I commute,” he said. “They didn’t need any proof of nothing. They basically just took my word for it.”

When asked for more documentation regarding how these decisions are made, Smith acknowledged there is no document containing distribution guidelines.

“We do not have any documents and base the funding amount off the student’s application,” he said.

As grateful as Scroggs is, he wishes that WCU will raise awareness of the fund in years to come.

“I do think they could extend a hand a little bit more and just showing students, ‘Hey, we’re here if you need us. We’re not saying that you’re going to need us, but stuff happens.’ I think they could put the word out more to students through counselors, teachers, staff, anybody as a reminder every now and then to say, ‘If anybody in here struggling, please talk to me you know we will get you help you know.’ And they can do better with that.”

The SEF data for 2019-2020 can be viewed here and the 2020-2021 data can be viewed here.

Eligible students are encouraged to apply through the dean of students’ website. Click here to donate to the Student Emergency Fund.