Dreamkeepers Emergency Financial Assistance Program

Sue Linn
Innovation Showcase
Lori always dreamed of becoming a nurse, but the demands of raising three children kept that dream on hold for several years. When she and her husband felt the timing was right, Lori enrolled in the nursing program at Moraine Valley Community College (MVCC) to pursue her dream.
Returning to school was not easy. In the beginning, Lori and her husband had to juggle the demands of work, family, and college, but her dream of becoming a nurse kept them moving forward. With little discretionary household income, they also struggled with many financial obstacles in order to pay for tuition, fees, and books. The financial struggle became more difficult when Lori had to quit working part-time in order to complete her clinical work.

At the end of Lori's first year in the nursing program, she had achieved a 4.0 G.P.A. She was on track to realizing her dream when the economic crisis occurred in 2008. Her husband's job was severely affected by the downturn, resulting in a reduction of his salary. Suddenly, Lori found herself in the position of having to choose between purchasing textbooks and purchasing eyeglasses. She chose to purchase the books and had to forgo proper eyeglasses in order to keep moving her education forward.

Lori suffered another financial blow that same semester when her car needed repairs she could not afford. She managed to complete her clinical work that semester by asking friends and family to drive her to and from her clinical sites, but she didn't know how she would be able to complete her clinical work the next semester.

Lori was on the brink of dropping out of school in order to deal with her growing financial crisis when she sought help from a college counselor. The counselor referred her to Moraine Valley's Dreamkeepers program, which provides financial assistance to students like Lori by offering small grants meant to address unanticipated financial emergencies.

MVCC's Dreamkeepers program provided $175 to repair Lori's car and $270 to pay for her new eyeglasses. She completed the semester and re-enrolled the following semester. After receiving the grant, she said, "We have suffered a tremendous loss in income. These funds are important for me to be able to continue my nursing career and provide for my family."

Lori completed her education and is currently working as a nurse in a community hospital. Her Dreamkeepers grant allowed Lori to secure a well-paying job and a much-needed second income that has helped to stabilize her family's financial situation.

Moraine Valley's Early Emergency Financial Assistance Program

In the fall of 2007, the MVCC Foundation established a student emergency assistance fund to support student retention by providing book grants to students who could not afford to buy textbooks. The Foundation established the fund with a $5,000 contribution to the college. By the end of the first semester of implementation, the fund was depleted. Thirty-three students received book grants averaging $152.

The Foundation made a second $5,000 contribution to the fund in the spring 2008 semester. This time 55 students requested assistance. It was clear that an annual contribution of $10,000 would not be sufficient to address student needs for books. The Foundation undertook a campaign to raise additional funds for the book program. However, as the demand for emergency book funds grew, it became apparent that many students needed help with other types of financial emergencies. The Foundation was exploring a more expansive program that would include a fund for addressing a variety of financial emergencies when it learned about Scholarship America's® Dreamkeepers program.

Dreamkeepers Program

Scholarship America established the Dreamkeepers program in 2004 in partnership with the Lumina Foundation for Education. Dreamkeepers is designed to help students stay in college when faced with unforeseen financial emergencies. Funding from Lumina Foundation for Education resulted in Dreamkeepers being piloted in 2005 in 11 community colleges throughout the United States. In 2008, the Dreamkeepers program added six community colleges and one four-year university with funding from the Walmart Foundation, and the Kresge Foundation provided funding in 2009 to expand the program to 13 more community colleges and one inner-city college.

Dreamkeepers strives to address student financial emergencies in two important ways. The first is to provide enough financial support to keep a student in class while the emergency is addressed. The second is to provide financial counseling so that a student can learn to anticipate emergency financial situations to the extent possible.

The success of Dreamkeepers is reflected in the data collected by Scholarship America since the program's inception. According to the data, the average national re-enrollment rate for community college students in 2008-2009 was 55 percent. The re-enrollment rate jumped to 84 percent for Dreamkeepers recipients.

Moraine Valley's Dreamkeepers Program

In 2008, the MVCC Foundation received a $50,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation through Scholarship America to create a Dreamkeepers Emergency Financial Assistance Program. A more expanded version of MVCC's original emergency book fund, Dreamkeepers provides small grants of $500 or less to students who experience sudden and unanticipated emergencies that might cause them to drop out of school. These emergencies include job loss, illness of a family member, and loss of a home due to eviction or disaster.

As MVCC developed its Dreamkeepers program, it had to consider several key issues, such as identifying an administrative home for the program and determining how awards would be paid. It became clear early in the program that MVCC's counseling department would become the administrative home. This ensured that students in distress could meet with counselors who would not only help them apply for a Dreamkeepers grant, but would also find resources and social services to help students stay in school and be successful.

Once an administrative home was found for Dreamkeepers, MVCC determined that the college's foundation should be responsible for the fiscal management of the program and for paying the awards. This would facilitate a quick payment of the emergency grants and give their foundation responsibility for fundraising to sustain the program. The process currently in place was designed to take less than one week and includes the following steps:

  • The MVCC student identifies himself/herself and meets with a counselor to discuss the financial emergency and the need for assistance.
  • A counselor assesses the need; assists the student with the application process, which includes a financial counseling component; and recommends additional social services if the student qualifies. The student is also required to complete an application for financial aid.
  • The student meets with the dean of counseling and advising, who evaluates the request for emergency assistance and makes a final determination regarding the student's eligibility for Dreamkeepers.

If the student's application is approved, the student receives a $50 debit card for food or a bus pass for transportation. If the need is greater, the request for assistance with life expenses such as rent, medical, or utility bills is sent to the college's foundation for payment. Payments for life expenses are always made to a third party on behalf of a student and do not exceed a total of $500.

Program Sustainability

The initial $50,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation helped to establish a strong program on MVCC's campus. Raising money to sustain the program has not been difficult because the program and its results resonate with individual donors and foundations in MVCC's community. The annual fundraising goal for the program is $40,000: the MVCC Foundation contributes $15,000 and the balance is contributed by individuals and foundations. Scholarship America has also continued to be an active partner in the fundraising effort, providing support materials and guidance that enhance the success of the MVCC Foundation's fundraising activities.

The Results

Grants from MVCC's Dreamkeepers program have been used to

  • Purchase food and clothing for students whose homes were lost to fire
  • Keep students from facing eviction from their homes
  • Put homeless students in temporary housing
  • Provide required student health insurance and medical exams so that health science and nursing students can participate in clinical work
  • Provide reliable transportation to and from campus
  • Provide emergency utility payments

When the program was introduced, we never imagined that such small grants could produce such a significant and positive effect on student retention. During the first year of the Dreamkeepers implementation, 91 awards were made averaging $315 each to students with unanticipated financial emergencies. At the end of the 2008-2009 academic year, 90 percent of Dreamkeepers award recipients had completed the semester and 76 percent re-enrolled the following semester.

Most importantly, Dreamkeepers has re-energized the MVCC faculty and staff awareness of the impact philanthropy has on student needs. They have become active partners in the Dreamkeepers program by referring students in need and by providing annual financial support.

More information on Dreamkeepers can be found at www.dreamkeepers.org. More information on Scholarship America can be found at www.scholarshipamerica.org.

Sue Linn is the executive director of MVCC Foundation, Moraine Valley Community College, Palos Hills, IL.