Monday, November 21, 2016

Micro Scholarships

Sometimes it doesn’t take much.

In 2012, the Feds rescinded the “ability to benefit” rule for colleges that administer Title IV financial aid.  That rule allowed students who didn’t have a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent -- at that time, a GED -- to take college credit classes and receive aid for them, as long as they could demonstrate the ‘ability to benefit,’ typically by taking a standardized test and attaining a certain score.  With that rule rescinded, now every student has to have either a diploma or its equivalent.  And the equivalent costs money that many students don’t have.

In New Jersey, we still use the GED as the equivalent.  (Massachusetts and many other states switched to the HiSET, but NJ didn’t.)  The GED is administered in four sections, with a $30 fee for each section.  

$120 may not sound like a lot, but it’s a serious barrier for people on the economic margins.  Not only do they have to take a prep class, arrange time off of work, and juggle transportation and childcare, but they also have to come up with $120 to try a test that they know isn’t a slam dunk.  And there’s no financial aid for tests.

Last week our Foundation Board voted to devote $5000 to pay for tests for people who need them.  That was double what was requested; the Board saw the importance and potential value, and wanted to put money where it would do some good.  This will.  I’ll venture to say that the bang for the buck will be extraordinary.

From the perspective of people with resources, that’s almost a trivial amount.  But it’s potentially life-changing.

A student who can now take the GED and pass it becomes eligible for Pell grants and other financial aid upon matriculation.  She can get on a pathway to a credential and skills that can help her make an adult wage.  She still has a long way to go, but it can be done, and the aid for which she’s now eligible will make it possible.  A relatively small gift will make it possible for more students to clear that first hurdle and get on the track to a degree or certificate.

Tressie McMillan Cottom has written extensively on the financial time horizons of strapped students.  She notes that for-profit colleges never, never, never charge application fees, even as they expect students to sign up for five figures of loans.  That’s because to someone who may or may not be able to make rent this month, a five figure loan due years in the future is mostly theoretical, but forty dollars on the table for an application fee is this week’s groceries.  One hundred and twenty dollars for an exam is simply prohibitive.  Taking that cost off the table can make the difference between trying and not; the rest follows from there.

Small scholarships -- whether in the form of waived fees, or in the form of emergency grants -- can make far more difference than most of us have to imagine.  

So in this week of thanks, I’m thankful that some people with resources and vision recognized a need, and volunteered the money to meet it.  They didn’t have to, but they did.  

Thank you.  Getting obstacles out of the way so students can step up to the plate is more than worthwhile.  

Program note: the blog will be on Thanksgiving break until Monday.  Happy Thanksgiving!