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Dreamkeepers Program Gives Students Emergency Cash

We've heard lots of talk lately from policymakers, administrators and educators about the problem of college completion. There has been extensive research and multifaceted proposals on keeping students in school, but sometimes the answer can be as simple as a few hundred bucks in a pinch.

That's what the Dreamkeepers program is about—providing emergency grants to help students recover from unexpected financial setbacks so they can stay in school and graduate. The average award is just $523. Some grants have been as low as $17 for a bus pass. The maximum lifetime award is $1,500, according to Janine Fugate, assistant vice president of communications for Scholarship America, a national education service organization that first piloted the program in 2004.

It's a small program that has doled out $1.1 million to 2,500 students so far, but it's growing. This month, 13 more community and open-enrollment campuses were chosen to offer the Dreamkeepers program, bringing the total schools in the program to 31. Selected schools enroll large numbers of historically underserved, low-income, or first-generation students. The new campuses include:

Pasadena City College, Pasadena, Calif.
Grossmont College, El Cajon, Calif.
College of Central Florida, Ocala, Fla.
Bunker Hill Community College, Boston
Macomb Community College, Warren, Mich.
Henry Ford Community College, Dearborn, Mich.
Wayne County Community College District, Detroit
Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Minneapolis
Inver Hills Community College, Inver Grove Heights, Minn.
City College of New York, New York City
Clark State Community College, Springfield, Ohio
Delaware County Community College, Media, Penn.
Seattle Central Community College, Seattle

Money is a huge barrier to college completion, and reports have shown that community college students often struggle to get adequate financial aid.

Many helped are non-traditional community college students living paycheck to paycheck, says Fugate. "What we are seeing is that a little bit of extra funding to fix a car, pay to keep the heat on, or buy eyeglasses keeps them in college," she says.

Each college can implement the program in its own way. Typically, faculty members are asked to be on the lookout for students in need—those who don't have textbooks or are missing classes, says Fugate. The students are then referred to the Dreamkeepers program, which is administered through a financial aid or student services office, and are asked to fill out an application demonstrating need. Checks are cut quickly to help students out of their bind.

So far, the results are encouraging. Community and open-enrollment colleges historically average a 55 percent re-enrollment/graduation rate. Of students who received Dreamkeepers assistance in 2008, about 84 percent either re-enrolled in school the following semester or graduated.

Funding for the program comes from the Kresge Foundation, Walmart Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation for Education. Fugate says the hope is to increase support to expand the program to more campuses. Once the programs are seeded, the goal is for colleges to eventually find ways to sustain the program on their own.

With the rising cost of tuition at many campuses around the country, it's likely going to take more programs like Dreamkeepers if President Obama's push to retake the world lead in college graduation rates by 2020 is to come to pass.

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