Author: Katy Swordfisk
Posted: June 4, 2019

Hardship funds can make the difference between staying in school or dropping out.

SHARONA SHNAYDER is an overachiever. At age 19 she’s already a junior and averaging 24 credits a term.

“I just can’t afford to be in school very long,” says the accounting major who is dual enrolled at PSU and Portland Community College.

Shnayder is a cash-strapped student struggling to make ends meet, and like many other students, she’s finding that a little extra financial support from the University can mean the difference between graduating or withdrawing. 

In response to student needs, two PSU schools and one college—The School of Business, School of Social Work and the College of Urban and Public Affairs—have launched financial hardship funds designed to ensure that students cannot only remain in school, but in some cases, put food on the table as well. Supporting student emergency funds is a giving opportunity for The Campaign for PSU, which is raising $300 million in philanthropic contributions for the University by 2021.

For years, PSU has had an emergency loan program that allows students to borrow up to $600, but the hardship funds provide grants to students that they don’t have to repay.

“Honestly, if I didn’t have that fund, I probably wouldn’t be going to school or would be stressed out every day trying to figure out what I was going to do next,” says Shnayder.

SINCE fall 2015, more than $730,000 has been awarded to 290 students at The School of Business (SB)—the first school to create a hardship fun. Some students receive more than one award, which ranges from $126 to $6,200, with the average award being $1,600.

The business school’s funding comes from different sources, including its tuition differential. SB students pay a higher tuition rate than students in some other majors, and the school uses a portion of those fees to give back to students. Funding also comes from the Center for Executive and Professional Education and private donors.

Becky Sanchez, the school’s executive director of undergraduate programs who oversees the fund, says the most common use is tuition. But textbooks, child care and personal expenses also top the list. As is the case with many innovative ideas, Sanchez was inspired by the story of one student.

Sanchez was looking at students who had not yet graduated but had more than 225 credits. One name on the list of about 1,000 caught her eye. Sanchez had worked with the student when she was an advisor.

The student told her that despite having only one class left, she wouldn’t graduate. The previous term’s bill was outstanding and had been sent to collections, so she got a job to pay the bill and then needed to continue working to pay living expenses.

“That particular case made me think, ‘Okay, we're not helping our students if they are dropping out when they have one class left, because they can’t pay their bills,’” Sanchez remembers. “So let’s create a process where we can help those students.”

Sanchez was able to pay the student’s $3,000 bill and the concept for a financial hardship fund was born.

Unfortunately, the fund shrinks as the academic year progresses.

“At this point I have $10,000,” says Sanchez. “I have three student applications in my email right now, and if I approve them all, I will have no more money.”

Fortunately, the dean of the school can help by talking to donors. It’s easier for donors to get behind giving funds when they know it’s going directly to a student to pay for rent or buy food, adds Sanchez.

THE SCHOOL of Social Work fund operates a little differently than the one in The School of Business. Marina Barcelo, social work’s student inclusion coordinator who manages the fund, says their donations largely come from faculty and staff and are on a much smaller scale. Their fund operates entirely off of gift cards to stores like Fred Meyer where students can use $50 or so to buy whatever they need: food, gas, clothing, personal supplies, etc.

“Students who have accessed the School of Social Work Student Emergency Fund over the past three years have experienced many challenges, including homelessness, unemployment, car and home theft, mental health struggles, hospitalizations, and loss of child care and scholarship support,” says Barcelo. “Many of these students work multiple jobs, living paycheck to paycheck with the constant stress of not knowing how they will afford tuition and complete their program.”

During this academic year, the fund has supported 78 students and all told, 138 students since it was started. The vast majority of which, Barcelo adds, are first-generation students.

“We recognize that our emergency fund is a Band-Aid, and does not solve the financial burdens our students face,” she says. “However, we also recognize that even simple gift cards can make the difference in a student's day or week.”

In the College of Urban and Public Affairs (CUPA), the emergency fund is known as the Dean’s Hardship Fund. Dean Stephen Percy started the fund last year as part of the PSU Day of Giving. Three students have benefited so far with grants of up to $500. Percy says that CUPA wants to grow the fund substantially in the next three years.

“Many of our undergraduate majors and graduate students walk a delicate line in supporting themselves, their families, and their education,” he explains. “Too many are one financial crisis away from having to leave the University. Research and experience at PSU tells us that if students can be helped to overcome unexpected emergencies, they can overcome their challenge and continue with their studies.”
HARDSHIP FUNDS have come in handy for many students, including Luis Patron-Diaz, a senior majoring in finance. Because of his status as a Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals student, Patron-Diaz, who is not eligible for federal loans or grants, ran out of options to pay for tuition last year. He’d heard about the business school’s financial hardship fund through Erica Wagner, associate dean of undergraduate programs. He applied for and received $1,600. He was able to access the fund a second time and receive an additional $1,100 to pay his remaining tuition bill—putting him on track to graduate in June.

“It literally changed my life,” says Patron-Diaz.

Without the fund, Patron-Diaz says he would likely need to drop to part-time and finish his degree one class at a time. Dropping out wasn’t an option. Patron-Diaz wants to attend law school.

Becca Hubinsky, an accounting student, says she tried to make things work with student loans and pinching pennies after losing her part-time job. A $1,500 hardship award in the form of tuition remission allowed her to breathe—and refocus on school and campus engagement.

“It’s already stressful enough being a student worrying that you don’t have time, and then to not have money either?” says Hubinsky. 

She’s grateful for the business school’s hardship fund and what it meant for her experience as a student. “This is a sign that I need to stay on helping the school,” she adds.

Many of the students seeking assistance are either homeless or on the brink. One of the CUPA students, for example, was able to obtain University housing but Percy says he’s still lacking resources for books, supplies and tuition. 

A social work Ph.D. student says access to emergency funds prevented a hospital stay because it allowed her to access healthy food and control her blood sugar. 

“The gift cards are a lifesaver and I’m forever grateful to those that donated them,” she says.

Sanchez, Wagner and education professor Karen Haley studied the impact of emergency funding on student retention.

“The creation of the hardship funding program did more than provide financial relief to students, it had the effect of creating a sense of community and care for these students,” they found. “Students reported a desire to give back to the school, to perform better in their classes, and a feeling that the school cared about them as individuals.”

Hardship grants not only relieved financial concerns and stress, but deepened their connection to the University.

“I feel really lucky I found this,” says Shnayder the young, hardworking accounting major who is on track to graduate in 2020.

Katy Swordfisk is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications

To support the PSU Student Emergency Fund, visit

(Top) Dual enrolled at PSU and Portland Community College, Sharona Shnayder is saving money on tuition, but when money got tight, a hardship fund helped her out.

(Left) As the child of undocumented immigrants, Luis Patron-Diaz is not eligible for federal loans or grants; hardship funding made a huge difference.

(Right) A hardship award helped pay for tuition when Becca Hubinsky lost her part-time job and student loans were not enough.