PSU schools and colleges launch hardship funds to relieve financial burden for students in need

Sharona Shnayder is an overachiever. Two years into her studies at Portland State University and she’s already a junior. She’s averaging 24 credits a term as a dually enrolled student at PSU and Portland Community College.

“I just can’t afford to be in school very long,” said the accounting student, who is on track to graduate in 2020.

Shnayder is also one of many cash-strapped PSU students struggling to make ends meet. Like a lot of other students, she’s finding that a little extra financial support from her school can mean the difference between graduating or withdrawing. 

In response students’ needs, three PSU schools and colleges — School of Business (SB), School of Social Work (SSW) and the College of Urban and Public Affairs (CUPA) — have launched financial hardship funds designed to ensure students can not only remain in school, but in some cases, put food on the table that week. PSU has had a university-wide emergency loan for years that allows students to borrow up to $600, but the hardship funds provide grants to students in specific colleges 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,” Shnayder said.

Hardship funds

At The School of Business — the first school to create a hardship fund  — more than $730,000 has been awarded to 290 students since Fall 2015. Some students received more than one award ranging between $126 and $6,200, with the average award being $1,600.

Sharona Shnayder“Honestly, if I didn’t have that fund, I probably wouldn’t be going to school."
— Sharona Shnayder

SB’s funding comes from a few different sources such as the school’s tuition differential. SB students pay a higher tuition rate than students in other majors, and the school uses a portion of those fees to give back to students with unmet need. Funding also comes from SB’s Center for Executive and Professional Education and private donors.

Becky Sanchez, the school’s executive director of undergraduate programs, who oversees the fund, said the most common use is tuition. But textbooks, childcare and personal expenses also top the list.

The School of Social Work’s fund operates a little differently than the School of Business. Marina Barcelo, the school’s student inclusion coordinator who manages the fund, said their donations largely come from faculty and staff — on a much smaller scale. The SSW fund operates entirely off of gift cards. Cards from stores like Fred Meyer are the most useful because students can use the $50 or so dollars to buy whatever they need: food, gas, clothing, personal supplies, etc.

During the 2018-2019 academic year, the fund has supported 78 students. All told, 138 students have benefited from the fund. The vast majority of which, Barcelo added, are first-generation students. 

In the College of Urban and Public Affairs, the fund is known as the Dean’s Hardship Fund.

Dean Stephen Percy started the fund last year as part of the PSU Foundation Day of Giving Campaign. Three students have benefitted so far with grants up to $500. Percy said they want to grow the fund substantially in the next three years.

Hardship funds have come in handy for many students including, Luis Patron-Diaz, a School of Business senior majoring in finance. Because of his status as a Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA) student, Patron-Diaz, who ineligible for federal loans or grants, ran out of options to pay for tuition last year. 

Luis Patron-Diaz“It literally changed my life.” — Luis Patron-Diaz  
He’d heard about the business school’s financial hardship fund through Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs Erica Wagner. He applied for and received $1,600 initially for tuition.

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,” Patron-Diaz said. 

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

Accounting student Becca Hubinsky said she tried to make things work with student loans and pinching pennies after losing her part-time job. A $1,500 tuition remission from SB 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?” Hubinsky said.

Analyzing impact

A joint study from The School of Business and College of Education analyzed the impact of hardship 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,” the PSU study 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.”

The researchers — SB’s Sanchez and Wagner as well as Karen Haley, a postsecondary education professor — found the more students felt PSU was invested in them, the deeper their commitment to PSU became — which in turn increased their persistence. 

Becca Habinsky “It’s already stressful enough being a student worrying that you don’t have time, and then to not have money either?” — Becca Hubinsky
The retention rate for hardship fund recipients is 88 percent. With additional funding, the study found the rate would increase to 92 percent.

Now that several schools and colleges are creating their own hardship funds, the PSU Foundation is working with the PSU Office of Student Financial Aid & Scholarships to develop a centralized hardship funding system to make it easier for all PSU students to see what kinds of aid might be available and potentially make it easier for donors to direct their gifts to help students facing hardship.

The potential system would also create a pathway for colleges with funds to check student’s financial need during the application process and make the applications more centrally located.
Amanda Nguyen, director of Student Financial Services, said control of the funds would stay with the individual college or school.

“Because they have strong relationships with their students and we want to encourage that,” she said.

Story by Katy Swordfisk
Homepage and top image by NashCo
Story images by Peter Simon, courtesy of PSU Foundation and Katy Swordfisk