University sets up fund for students who face financial emergencies

Process for how students can obtain grants from the fund is still unclear

University sets up fund for students who face financial emergencies

The struggles faced by former AU student Max Durbin, who could not afford to attend the University after he was cut off from his parents for coming out as transgender, raised a central response from readers: What could the University be doing to help students who run into these types of financial challenges?

One answer: giving students grants from the newly created Kerwin Family Emergency Financial Aid Fund.

The fund was created to “provide assistance to students whose unmet financial need poses a significant barrier to graduation,” according to a March 2017 issue of American Magazine, the University’s alumni magazine.

Students who have been facing financial difficulties were not given access to the fund until a few months ago because the fund was endowed in late 2017, said Mark Story, the University’s director of strategic communications.

“Endowed funds sit for a year, collect interest and then universities spend the interest from the fund, usually about five percent,” Story said.

Students who had been facing financial difficulties prior to the fund being endowed were not informed of the fund because “there was no money in the fund and there was not that help even available,” Story said.

Durbin, who said he was not told about the fund during his conversations with administrators in the fall of 2017, said in September that he was told almost immediately that he needed to transfer when he explained his situation to the financial aid office.

“They didn’t make any efforts to try to get me to stay,” Durbin said. “There was no effort at all.”

Although the fund is now available for student use, some students who have dealt with financial struggles say they see the need for more options for students in unique circumstances.

Zack Pease, a senior in the School of International Service, has been experiencing financial complications since his sophomore year. When he found out that his parents were separating and his dad would no longer help pay for his tuition, he attempted to get loans from the financial aid office.

“The problem with getting loans when your parents are just separating is that their taxes are still joined,” Pease said. “My mom’s taxes and my dad’s taxes made it look like my mom had a lot more money than she does.”

In order to get the help he needed, Pease had to “climb through the ranks” of the University’s bureaucracy, making the process very lengthy and difficult. Ultimately, a professor helped Pease get the loans that he needed to continue at AU, but he is still in a significant amount of debt and believes that there should be more options made available to students facing these types of challenges.

“It doesn’t seem like there is a lot that AU can do when people have a sudden financial change,” Pease said.

While the Kerwin Fund is now available to help students with financial difficulties, the process for how students can obtain grants from the fund is still unclear because the financial aid office has not awarded any money from the fund yet, Story said. There is no application necessary, he added.

“The financial aid office reviews all appeals for additional assistance and attempts to leverage all funding at its disposal to meet the needs of students who are appealing for additional assistance,” he said.

Both Durbin and Pease said that they recognized the limitations of the University to address financial issues, since most need-based aid comes through the federal government. But they hope to see AU do more for students who face these types of issues.

“The AU financial aid counselors were nice, but they can only do so much,” Pease said. “There’s a certain point with certain people when you shouldn’t go by the book.”

This article originally appeared in The Eagle's November 2018 fall print edition

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