Colleges help students in a pinch

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Zach Gihorski, a Delaware Valley University graduate, now works for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Nikolria Grant didn't have enough money to register for spring courses her freshman year at Neumann University. She worried as she saw the classes she wanted filling up.

Zachary Gihorski found himself a couple of thousand dollars short of paying his bill at Delaware Valley University. He thought he'd have to drop out - again.

Meeghan Rossi almost had to leave Moravian College after her dad got cancer and medical bills mounted.

All three schools awarded emergency grants to the students to keep them in school. They are among a growing group of colleges nationally that have designated special funds to help students bridge unexpected circumstances, college financial experts say.

"In the past, it's been like somebody's drawer," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, an educational policy studies and sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "What's happening now is there's greater need and more attention to the formalization of it because there are more students in college today with greater needs."

Moravian started its fund, named after president Byron L. Grigsby's greyhound Mo, a rescue dog, two years ago. Like Mo, students "sometimes need to be rescued and given a second chance," says the fund's web page.

"Even though it's not a lot of money, it really does help," said Rossi, 20, who has received $750 a semester the last two years. "Without it, I don't think I'd still be at Moravian."

Students whose families experience a change in income can reapply for federal and state financial aid, but often that money doesn't come as quickly as students need it. Colleges are trying to fill the gap.

National groups were not aware of how many colleges have emergency funds. Goldrick-Rab's Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which focuses on college affordability, found more than 100 but cautioned that's not a complete list. NASPA, a national association of student affairs administrators, has surveyed 5,000 schools and expects to have an estimate this spring. As of last week, several hundred had responded, said Amelia Parnell, vice president for research and policy. About 70 percent of those said they had some type of emergency aid, she said.

"A lot of folks are looking at emergency aid as a real retention tool, so we can keep students in school and moving toward completion," said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Locally, most colleges that responded to an inquiry said that they offer some type of emergency funds and that the money comes from private donations.

Temple gave out 373 grants last school year from its Student Emergency Aid Fund, which began in 1995. An emergency is defined as "a circumstance that jeopardizes a student's ability to meet his or her basic needs and requires immediate action," said Temple spokesman Brandon Lausch. Examples include becoming a crime victim or experiencing a fire, a serious medical ailment, a family death or illness.

Amounts range from $50 to $300.

"People find it hard to believe that students will leave over a small amount of money," said Goldrick-Rab, who will join Temple in July, "but they do."

Delaware Valley's fund started in 2009 with a $10,000 donation from alumnus Jim Harteis, Clas of '65, when the economic downturn was putting more pressure on students. Harteis, 72, an Altoona-area farmer, said he understands how students can hit a tough spot and wanted to help. He grew up in a family of 14 children.

"When you go away to college and you've got 10 younger siblings still living at home," he said, "the parents aren't going to be able to write out too many checks."

To date, 10 students, including Gihorski, have received grants from the fund totaling $29,275. Grants range from $1,500 to $4,000.

All but one of the students have either graduated or are still in school, said Joan Hock, director of financial aid.

Gihorski started college in 2006, then left three years later to help tend the family farm in Cumberland County, N.J. He returned in spring 2011 and ran into trouble that fall. Then came a letter from the financial aid office.

"They said I had a week to come up with the money or go home," said Gihorski, who already was working several jobs to pay for his education. "I didn't know what to do."

An administrator hooked him up with emergency funds. He went on to be named one of the top students in his graduating class, helped Delaware Valley start a charitable garden to feed the hungry, and won a national student agricultural award.

"Had they not given me that emergency aid, that never would have happened," said Gihorski, 27, who now works at the state's Department of Agriculture in Harrisburg.

At Moravian, Rossi, a junior from Albrightsville, is one of 15 students who got grants this year ranging from $500 to $1,500.

"I was ecstatic to find a place where I could apply for help," said Rossi, who hopes to become a forensic scientist.

Neumann University in Aston awards 40 to 50 grants a year, from a few thousand dollars to just enough for a textbook.

When Grant, 21, a junior biology major, tried to register for spring courses her freshman year, her balance due wasn't low enough. Her mother, she said, was giving all she could.

"I was worrying about what was my next step," she said.

Then Neumann made an emergency award.

"I was shocked," Grant said. "I was so grateful."

She plans to become a developmental pediatrician, a goal she set after seeing her younger brother diagnosed with ADHD. She's got another goal, too.

"Like the many people who have helped me in continuing my education," she said, "I also want to give back by establishing a scholarship for students majoring in biology so that they can continue their education."

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