I am reading letters of appreciation with a friend of mine who directs a small educational foundation. He recently established a program to award one-time grants of $500 to $1000 to community college students in need. These letters are from recipients, students in nursing or a STEM field, professions the donors wanted to support.
The letters provide a view into the lives of successful students, people who are close to completing a two-year degree, or are about to transfer to a university, or are finishing a nursing program and preparing to take the licensing exam. They made it. American Dream stories. The money will go toward the nursing licensing exam, or books, or transportation, or simply keeping a roof over their heads and food on their tables. A number of the letter-writers discuss overwhelming healthcare burdens and costs. In several cases, it is the letter-writers themselves who have dealt with serious diseases like cancer, but in fifty percent of the letters, it is grandparents, parents, siblings, or children who are afflicted with cancer, Parkinson’s, strokes, diabetes leading to amputation, brain injury, and in one awful story, a mother in ICU from a gunshot wound in the chest—the outcome of domestic violence. In addition to the shock and sadness these traumas cause, they also create extraordinary financial burdens, in some instances leading to lengthy interruptions in education. The average time it takes for community college students to complete degrees and certificates is a big policy issue right now. If you want evidence of one reason for the time-to-degree problem —and also want a line of sight on the state of healthcare in our country— read these letters.
The letters convey a detailed, vivid sense of how precarious these students’ lives are. Money for the bus or gas for the car is a big thing. People don’t get their textbooks on time because they are searching for the lowest price. Balancing school, work, and family is intensely demanding, and, more often than not, it is school that suffers. (An aside: A just-published report from the College Futures Foundation reveals that among students in California two- and four-year colleges, housing and food costs—not just tuition—are increasingly becoming barriers to college completion.) Almost all of the letters reveal a web of responsibilities to other family members beyond one’s own spouse and children. The letters are graceful, and brimming with gratitude, and exude drive and determination and immense strength, but they also reveal how one mishap, one piece of bad luck—an accident, a lost job, illness—can jeopardize what these people have worked so hard to attain. The evaporation of their American Dream.
Except for those few foundations that award scholarships or fellowships, most typically do not give one-time awards to individuals to pay for expenses. They want to give their money to programs that will change the status quo, create interventions or new structures. There’s a solid logic to this way of thinking. You want to use your money in a way that will have the broadest effect on the issues that matter to you. If you want to increase the number of first-generation college goers entering the nursing profession, for example, then you invest your money in programs that recruit and prepare them, or better educate them, or lead them more effectively from training to employment. You try to change the system through which these students become nurses. If you just use your money to provide short-term fixes for individuals in need, then, as one head of an educational foundation put it, you’re “simply writing checks” and not making sustainable change.
But what the lives of the letter-writers get me to ponder is this: Foundations and other state and federal agencies could create programs that do change things systemically, yet students could still be knocked off course by a single destabilizing life event—thus undercutting the effects of the program. The success of systemic change is intimately linked to the individual economic difficulties of the program’s participants. As we attempt to widen access to more low-income and first-generation students, we also have to confront the economic instability of their lives, especially in a time of widening inequality and continued threats to an already compromised social safety net.
The causes and scope of this economic insecurity, of course, are way beyond what can be remedied with a small grant. A few hundred bucks will not alleviate chronic housing or food insecurity. But a quick, targeted award can help in an emergency: can repair a car needed for school and work, replace a stolen computer, pay for food or rent during a time when a breadwinner is recuperating from surgery. Or the funds can be used for one-time expenses that are crucial for students’ careers. A number of the letter writers will use their award to pay for their nursing licensing exam, several noting that without that award, their certification could be delayed.
All this makes me wonder about the wisdom of thinking of funding for systemic change and funding for individual, short-term needs as two separate and distinct mechanisms, the first generally valued more than the second. Rather, we can also conceive of these two approaches to funding as interlinked. I very much understand the desire to change current structures and practices to make them more effective over time and, one hopes, affect more people. But I also know how easily someone’s progress toward a desired goal—even in the best of programs—can be sabotaged by a single life event. So if we can remedy that interrupting event, and do so with a small award that has a big impact, shouldn’t we do it for the sake of the person and the program? In fact, several educational foundations are now distributing both kinds of awards.
And since I’m offering one modest proposal here, may I offer one more? As my friend at the foundation was reading those letters of appreciation, he began to see—as though a veil had been pulled aside—not just the immediate need discussed by the writers, but the massive need surrounding them, for example, the extraordinary healthcare demands they face. As noted, there’s not much his small foundation could do to help on that front. But foundations are in a unique position to make public what their projects reveal. They could discuss more broadly the pain and challenge they see, take a civic and moral stand. Provide resources and provide witness.