Concord And Other Colleges Fill COVID Gap To Help Students Stay In School As State Steps Up To Help
Colleges and universities are struggling to keep up with new needs of students in the COVID-19 era. Some have created programs that help students access money quickly. And now, a statewide initiative has been created to help with financial support
Twenty-year-old Destiny Robertson isn’t used to asking for help. Now a senior in college, she’s been supporting herself since she was 17 while finishing her senior year of high school.
“You think your parents are your biggest cheerleaders, especially when you're first-generation (college student),” Robertson said. “It's hard to deal with, but I think they'll be fine knowing that it's the truth and I'm still flourishing as I am without that support.”
It’s not just money for school that Robertson needed. She had no idea how to apply for scholarships or academic grants. She said getting into college is one thing, but getting through it is something else entirely.
“You almost feel alone,” Robertson said. “First generation college students don't have that entry knowledge that people take for granted and sometimes college officials take for granted that we know these things. That was a hard pill to swallow but after you swallow it and digest it, it blooms into what I like to call a graduate.”
Before a government-ordered-lockdown, in spring 2020, Robertson was working two jobs during her junior year in college. She was employed about 35 hours per week as a job coach for people with disabilities at the Mercer County Opportunity Industries. And she also worked in a job studies program in the Concord University Student Support Services Office on campus where she spent another 10 hours a week doing social media.
When Gov. Jim Justice ordered a statewide lockdown as the number of COVID-19 cases began to increase, Robertson’s work as a job coach was cut back to five hours. Later, Opportunity Industry closed and she lost that job completely.
When campus shut down, she also lost her work-study job.
“I had to choose either hopefully get approved for this CU Gap Fund or drop all my classes and go to work full-time as a waitress,” Robertson said.
The CU Gap Fund was set up in Fall 2017 when an anonymous donor gave a matching amount to start the program. Since then, Concord has disbursed more than $29,000 in 128 checks.
At Concord, about half of the students are eligible for Pell Grants, which means they are first-generation or come from a low-income background.
Professor Sarah Beasley helped get the program started and now oversees it as the vice president of Student Affairs, the office where students should go for help.
“A young woman, her house burned down last year, and we had a student who lost her father to a drug overdose and her mother was battling cancer,” Beasley said, “These are small grants up to only $250 but a little bit can help keep a student enrolled in school.”
Beasley says the stories are inspiring and eye-opening.
“I just have been fortunate in my own life and realize the sort of privilege I've had in my life,” Beasley said. “My parents always really put an emphasis on education, and really taught me that education can transform lives and I think to have that opportunity here at Concord for students, we have to be able to meet some of their basic needs, not just educational needs, but things like food, housing, transportation.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, Beasely says there’s even more need.
“More of our classes are hybrid and online,” Beasley said. “So there's been greater demand for students who aren't able to afford laptops, Internet access. It's amazing how many students are writing papers and on things like that on phones.”
She might get the opportunity to do more with support from a state program.
In June 2020, West Virginia’s Higher Education Policy Commission and Community and Technical College System joined with Philanthropy West Virginia to announce a project that’s expected to create an emergency funds program.
It’s funded by the Ascendium Education Group – one of the most active postsecondary education philanthropies in the country.
The emergency grant is one of five components of the statewide initiative. The HEPC is still in the process of developing this program.
Dr. Chris Treadway is the senior director of research and policy with the West Virginia HEPC.
“We're not sure exactly what the logistics of that will look like yet, but I would expect that it would start with someone in the Student Affairs office,” Treadway said.
According to a release from the Community and Technical College System of West Virginia, a different $4.2 million project is already underway. It’s a pilot emergency grant program at two community and technical colleges. That program is funded by a grant from Arnold Ventures.
As for Destiny Roberts, she’s now working in the Student Support Services office as an administrative associate and is expected to graduate in May with a bachelors in Sociology.