If the mission of a university is to graduate students, understanding their financial needs is imperative. The concept is one officials with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith say they understand and are working to address.
Dr. Terisa Riley, UAFS chancellor, and several with the university reported to the UAFS Board of Visitors at its regular meeting Wednesday (Feb. 19) on efforts the university has made in regard to emergency aid.
According to Trellis Research, 65% of college students worry about having enough money to pay for school; 68% of students are less than confident they will be able to pay off the debt they acquire in while in school; and 63% say they would have trouble getting $500 in cash or credit to meet an unexpected need within the next month.
With 55% of its undergraduate students Pell grant eligible, UAFS stats concerning financial wellness are probably higher, Riley said. To be Pell grant eligible, family income must not be more than $50,000 annually. At UAFS, that number is usually less than $25,000.
“Unforeseen financial hardship often means a student might not graduate. The average emergency is $300, but that $300 can get them off track,” Riley said. “Our mission is to get students to graduate. If $300 derails them, we don’t want that.”
UAFS is the most affordable four-year campus of higher education in the state with the total cost to attend for a year (the fall and spring semester) is $22,417. That includes tuition, housing, food, transportation, books and miscellaneous known expenses. First-time, full-time resident students can receive a maximum financial aid package of $11,500, which includes Pell grant, Arkansas Challenge scholarship, and loans. This does not include incentive scholarships and grants that might be available to the student.
“It is rare for students to be packaged with enough money to cover everything, and financial aid does not take in to account unexpected expenses,” Riley said. “We encourage students to pursue work-study and other scholarship possibilities. Occasionally, there is a student who has everything paid for. But that is the exception, what I refer to as the unicorn.”
The vast majority of students attending UAFS work one or more jobs while taking classes, officials said.
“Most of our students need more money and an emergency will throw them off course,” Riley said.
So UAFS has programs in place that are there to help. Student emergency aid is any aid provided to a student for an emergency unforeseen hardship that may cause the student not to graduate. This could come in the form of housing or food insecurity; lack of safe or reliable transportation; medical emergency; loss of income; and natural disasters, Riley said.
One of those was the Dash Emergency Grant. UAFS received funding for the grants in 2017 with $150,000 for the university to disperse in grants over two years for unforeseen emergency needs. During that two-year period, Aug. 15, 2017, to Aug. 31, 2019, UAFS awarded 184 grants worth $139,312.93, with the average grant at $757, said Dr. Margaret Tanner, associate provost for academic affairs.
“So many of our students live on the edge. I don’t know how some of them go through what they go through,” Tanner said. “If I were them, I would have given up and gone home. But these students keep going. They are hopeful this education will change the circumstance for their family and them. They are putting their trust in us.”
Though the grant has ended, the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Foundation is working to see if a fund can be started to replace the grant. Through the UAFS Foundation, the university has $100,000 available for completion grants. These grants are available to students nearing completion of a degree but find themselves unable to meet the cost of their final one or two semesters. In 2018-19, UAFS assisted 74 students with an average $1,341 award. Of students assisted, 93% either completed their degree or were continuously enrolled towards degree completion. In 2019-20 those numbers rose to 81 students assisted with an average award of $879 and 96% either completing their degree or continuously enrolled, said Jennifer Holland, executive director of retention.
The university also has a Rescue Scholarship, which is available to help students outstanding balances after all other financial aid has been exhausted. The scholarships became available to help after UAFS instituted the policy that tuition had to be paid or payment plan had to be in place before the semester starts or students will be dropped. These small scholarships are available to help students with unexpected or unanticipated non-school expenses, including auto repairs and medical bills. In the fall, this scholarship helped 96 students with an average award of $620. The fund provided $61,386.73 to help students in the fall. Of students helped, 92.7% completed their degree or care continuously enrolled through this spring semester, Holland said.
The UAFS foundation has an emergency aid grant to help students with unexpected expenses that could threaten to derail them, said Blake Rickman, vice chancellor for advancement. The fund has a balance of $10,759. The average award is $670, which is paid to third parties with whom students have balances to be paid.
“We’ve estimated, based on our past requests, we need to collect and disperse $30,000 a year from this fund,” Rickman said.
UAFS has also opened a Lion Pride Food Pantry thanks to the Student Government Association that has a blessing box located between the Recreation and Wellness Center and the Old Gym that provides nutritious foods like rice, beans, peanut butter and canned soups and meals for students who need it. A Grab n Go sack lunch program also offers students the chance to grab a sack lunch with a sandwich, juice pouch and snack cake from small refrigerators located at the Student Life Office in the campus center, the lobby of the Math Science building and the Pendergraft Health Sciences building Tuesday through Friday while supplies last.
The university is looking at other programs for the future, including a full-needs pantry to include food, hygiene products and school supplies for students; a program that would allow graduates to donate commencement regalia that would go to graduates who cannot afford them; and emergency on-campus housing, Riley said.
“We are talking about short-term emergency living arrangements for homeless students. If we have empty beds on campus, we should not have homeless students,” Riley said.