Community Foundation fund seeks to ease college budgets


The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington has provided $160,000 in grants from the Southwest Washington COVID Response Fund to assist local colleges and universities that are providing basic needs to students hit hardest by COVID-19.

The Community Foundation announced the grants late last month, noting that the 43 percent of college students reported by Census Bureau data were hit by recent layoffs, furloughs and reduced hours. If students were claimed as dependents in their parents’ tax returns they were also ineligible for stimulus relief checks.

The foundation acknowledged that campus emergency funds and food pantries were not intended to address the needs of students at the scale of what has resulted from COVID-19 response, noting that WSU Vancouver had to temporarily close its food pantry due to shortages, switching to a weekly ”care package” in order to fulfill an influx of requests.

WSU Vancouver was one of the recipients of a COVID response fund grant intended to assist students in financial distress, the foundation stated.

WSU Vancouver Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Enrollment Domanic Thomas said the grant was filling gaps around food security and providing for other needs like rent, utilities and medical bills.

"Lots of our students work day jobs to make ends meet, and many are now feeling a loss of income," Thomas said. "This has real world implications when it comes to affording the rising cost of tuition, books and housing, while also making sure your loved ones are cared for."

The CARES Act provided roughly $12.6 billion directly to colleges and universities for student needs, the foundation said, though the money was for a “specific population” of students. Half of that money was earmarked as emergency aid for students who meet a long list of requirements. WSU Vancouver, Clark College and Lower Columbia College have all qualified for CARES Act funding, the foundation said, but college officials say it wouldn’t meet the needs of a full response.

The foundation said that a formula benefitting institutions with greater full-time enrollment and that the legislation excluded many students, including international students, undocumented students and many who had financial limitations.

Clark College Foundation Chief Advancement Officer Joel B. Munson said the two grants from the COVID Response Fund will provide relief specifically for students who are ineligible for CARES Act support, including some of the college’s underrepresented, low-income and first-generation students.

“Just like others, college students are juggling a lot of responsibilities — family, employment, child care — you name it,” Munson said. “Unfortunately, these ineligible students have additional financial burdens to bear, and a single utility bill could interrupt their college career. These funds will help even the playing field a bit for these hardworking students during this very difficult time.”

Lower Columbia College (LCC) also received a COVID Response Fund grant for its Student Success Fund, which supports all basic needs, including childcare costs, the foundation said.

Social distancing had greater impacts for students with children, with the foundation citing data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study showing that 22 percent of undergraduates are also parenting.

LCC officials say the fund has received more than $300,000 in requests for emergency assistance since COVID-19 hit Washington state. The Community Foundation grant will allow counselors like Jennifer Houge to fulfill requests from students who are ineligible for CARES Act funds.

Houge says the economic reality of life during COVID-19 is setting in for students and many are thinking about putting their schooling on hold due to financial hardship.

“Learning is virtual, peer support is patchy, jobs are scarce, and daycares and schools are closed.” Houge said. "We are grateful for the support to keep students in school and on track to graduate. Every bit from our community helps our students in need to stay their course.”

Enrollment numbers appear to back up that students are putting academic pursuits on hold, the foundation said. Although spring enrollment numbers at WSU Vancouver are flat, Clark College and Lower Columbia College have respectively seen decreases of 11.9 percent and 13 percent compared to last year.

Although enrollments were already declining in some cases, the foundation said those numbers could be further evidence that COVID-19 is impacting educational attainment and college budgets. Revenue declines and other factors have all three campuses unsure about what the next academic year holds.

— The Reflector