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Same Storm, Different Boats

JULY 2022


    At every step of the way, trusted partners showed up alongside MAF to support students, workers, and immigrant families left out of federal relief during the pandemic. Their partnership allowed us to reach more people with critical cash assistance, making people feel seen and heard. 

    In this episode, Alex Altman sits down with one of those partners, April Yee, Senior Program Officer at College Futures Foundation. A leader in the higher education space, College Futures Foundation partnered with MAF and others to launch the California College Student Emergency Support Fund. Alex and April share insights into how the pandemic impacted college students and discuss learnings from our collaboration to provide $500 cash grants to low-income California college students.

  • The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

    ROCIO: Welcome to Cafecito con MAF. A podcast about showing up, doing more, and doing better for people. We’re on a mission to help people become visible, active, and successful in their financial lives. Join us!

    ALEX: Hi everyone! My name is Alex Altman and I’m the philanthropy director at MAF, and your podcast host for today’s episode. Earlier in this season, we’ve shared with you stories that may run counter to what you’re hearing in the mainstream news. Rather than talking about how well the country is doing as households pay down debt and build up savings, we’re telling another story, the story of those left out of crisis relief.

    DIANA: I have nephews and young adults who were missing that support system. Because as an adult, you know how to “adult”. But when you’re transitioning from teenager to young adult, they need that support out there. And I feel like if there was an organization like you guys, focusing on kids who come out of high school, that’s when you’re kind of lost.

    Partnering together in the early days of the pandemic

    ALEX: Many college students, particularly first-generation low-income immigrants, go to college as a way to break the cycle of poverty, not only for themselves but for their families as well. But as the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated, that path isn’t always so easy, especially when you’re being systematically excluded from crucial resources. 

    Joining me today to talk more about the experience of higher ed students during COVID-19 is April Yee, from the College Futures Foundation. Hi, April, welcome!

    APRIL: Thanks. Hi, Alex! Good to see you.

    ALEX: So just to start out, maybe to level set, MAF and College Futures have been working together for about two years now, since the pandemic started. Can you provide some context for that partnership?

    APRIL: Sure. You know when COVID began, which I guess feels like a different era now, it felt like this short-term crisis that was popping up. Our CEO of the College Futures Foundation, Monica Lozano, in coordination with the board, was really interested in what we can do immediately. How can we help?

    And having had some conversations with folks at the state level, the decision that was come to was that philanthropy could provide some short-term support to students. It was going to take a while for the state to get its ducks in a row, the federal government — all of that — but we could provide some of that short-term, immediate aid to students.

    And so she reached out to José, your founder and CEO, given their previous partnership around undocumented students and asked if there was an opportunity for partnership given MAF’s expertise in providing support to folks out in the community. And that’s where we started working together.

    ALEX: I remember when we first heard from Monica. I mean it was in March, right? We had just gone into lockdown and you sort of didn’t really have a sense of what was to come. We just knew things were going to transition, we sort of had to — for college students, for workers, for everyone — life was going to change, life was changing overnight. 

    And so, how do we — like you said — while we wait for the government, while we see what plays out, how can we move quickly to address some of the gaps that come up?

    APRIL: Folks just signed up pretty quickly. I think it’s a testament to College Futures’ role in the field and our long-standing commitment to students in California. But a lot of our funder partners too were like — great, that’s something that we don’t have to coordinate and figure out! They were worried about it, they were concerned too. 

    And it was really great to be able to pool these resources, streamline what is typically not an easy process in philanthropy. We’re not going to require different sorts of processes and so that was inspiring to see how we could all just be nimble, act quick, and get it done. 

    The tremendous need

    ALEX: So let me take us back. So we have ultimately across this partnership, a little over $3 million to provide grants. And we would provide $500 cash assistance — no strings attached, so students can use it however they need because part of it is we know that students will have different challenges. 

    And then we launched the fund. And in part because College Futures did such an incredible job of networking across the systems, we had 66,000 students apply in the first 24 hours. Where do you go from there?

    APRIL: I mean that still makes my heart hurt right now to hear. It’s stunning — and it just tells you the depth of need. And now with some distance between that moment and here, we talk about…why is it that…how do we reach students? We have all these resources for students, the state’s providing —. And why aren’t they taking it? 

    There’s something about the no-strings attached, the beautiful interface, and the way that you ask the questions. And just honestly, I think a huge component was the way this information was going out through trusted relationships, whether it was from nonprofit organizations or the segments, but to have that kind of response in the first 24 hours is in some ways successful, but in other ways, it was heartbreaking. 

    How COVID-19 shifted students’ realities

    ALEX: Yeah, I absolutely feel that. Maybe we could spend a few minutes just talking about how the pandemic has impacted students and how it has shifted their realities. Can you share a little about what you’ve heard from students or what you’ve learned about how they’re weathering the pandemic? 

    APRIL: There’s no way to underestimate or overestimate how much this has changed their lives. Some may or may not have laptop computers and strong WiFi. We heard a lot of stories about how students were trying to continue in their courses on their phones, their smartphones — that’s their primary way. Or going to campus or public libraries or the parking lots to try to tap into WiFi to finish homework. It’s affected — that was sort of the first semester and I think over time, we’ve seen declining enrollments and folks deciding whether to take a semester or a year off. Or just to not apply in the first place if they’re coming from high school. That’s happened. When they are able to log in, the notion of connecting with faculty and classmates online has completely changed the learning experience. The whole idea of having your camera on and what that means. And being able to have side conversations or date or flirt or make friends. 

    ALEX: The pillars of college experience!

    APRIL: Yeah! Do you want to go grab coffee? Or I missed that note! Or I wasn’t in class yesterday. You lose a lot of that in the virtual space. And so we’ve heard from students that it’s just been really hard, in every possible way — really, really hard.

    ALEX: You know we had talked to Taryn. She said after classes closed, she had been taking her twins to daycare on campus. They were getting meals on campus. And so with classes shifting remotely, not only is she now trying to figure out remote classes, but what do you do with childcare? How do you now become a full-time parent on top of taking classes? 

    So there’s so much of that nuance and dimensionality. And I think that’s what the crisis really brought up — is that not everybody experienced the last two years in the same way.

    APRIL: That’s right. I’ve heard folks say, “We’re all weathering the same storm but we’re in very different boats.” When we think about who researchers can contact or who colleges bring in for focus groups. The students who have the time for that or who have the relationships to be invited are often not the students who are of greatest need because those students are hustling to pick up their kids from child care or to their next job. 

    One of the biggest headlines is that students are embedded in families — whether they’re heads of families or adults helping their parents — they’re embedded in families. This notion of individual students — institutions often think of FTE — that’s full-time enrollment when they’re counting their numbers — that’s not who we’re talking about. We’re not talking about FTEs, we’re not even talking about students, I think we’re talking about humans and families — people. The data that you collected through the surveys and just this whole experience, I think that’s one of the biggest takeaways: how interconnected students are with their families. 

    A financial equity framework

    ALEX: Yeah, absolutely, and that was such a big focus during these relief efforts: the students we reached and the survey that we collected responses for isn’t a representative survey of all students across the state. Right? Like you said, by using this financial equity framework, we focused on students who faced systemic barriers, who are DACAmented, who are foster youth, who don’t necessarily have the same support system that other students do, who had lost income, employment, and who were facing strains — either they themselves had gotten sick with COVID or they were supporting family members, like we just talked about with Taryn.

    You know one of the things that stood out pretty sharply is that students who had dependents navigating this transition were more likely to report that they had trouble accessing the space or the technology that they needed. They had more trouble covering basic needs and were twice as likely to be late on their rent. They were three times more likely to use a payday loan to cover needs. Because their needs looked very different from — you know — this traditional student profile that we talk about. 

    Learnings from this partnership

    APRIL: Another reason why I’m just so grateful and proud of this partnership is that your expertise and insights in understanding folks’ financial lives is a huge addition to the higher ed frame around finances. 

    Our lens typically, in this sector has to do with: ‘are you low-income?’ — I’m doing air quotes right now — as defined by eligible for Pell grants. That is the measure. 

    But thinking about income, thinking about assets, thinking about dependents, thinking about lost hours if you’re an hourly worker. You just provided so much more nuance to my understanding of what we mean when we think about equity as it relates to poverty and financial stability, financial confidence — that was a topic we talked about a lot over the course of the last few years. 

    I’m really grateful for the learnings. I think there’s a lot to continue to explore. But it’s not how higher education institutions typically think about student needs, or thinking about them as parents or adult children who are supporting other members of their families.

    ALEX: I want to bring us back to reflecting. So as these shifts are happening, as College Futures and MAF collaborated on this work over the last couple of years, what did we learn? Particularly when we think about giving people cash, giving students cash to cover whatever they need, and recognizing — again trusting students — that they know what they need best and recognizing that it’s going to be complex and it’s going to differ based on each student’s situation. What did you take away from the emergency cash assistance fund that we collaborated on?

    APRIL: You know I’ve been thinking about this — because that’s my job. I think we’re already in this space where we’re trying to break out of higher ed being this island — as part of this elite space in our social— in our society, that’s on its own. And especially with public higher ed — that’s what I’m focused on — how do we think about higher education as being part of a fabric of a society? As part of a connection to other state agencies or public agencies that are here to support a state, the people of a state. That’s sort of the backdrop of what I was thinking about in terms of higher ed being connected to K-12, but not just K-12, to CalFresh, and to the other kinds of public entities in the state. 

    That made me start thinking about our partnership, and how much there is to learn outside of higher ed. Our partnership is a perfect example of the notion of financial aid and thinking about poverty and wealth as being defined just as Pell/Pell-eligible. And your insights and expertise provided this much more expansive, much more nuanced understanding of students’ financial lives. 

    And those are the kind of partnerships that I think we really need to continue to build for the higher education system to work better for students. We can’t just have institutions in their bubble, trying to work with students, but actually working with community-based partnerships to understand how to meet the needs of a community in ways that not necessarily institutions can do by themselves. 

    The sacrifices and the strategies that they made were another takeaway. The framing around both was important for me. Often, we talk about the population that this fund served and was deemed those most in need. And yet they’re so resourceful, they’re so resilient, they’re figuring it out.

    Small amounts make a big difference

    APRIL: There’s something about the money. Five hundred dollars is not — it’s important — but it’s not going to change the life course trajectory of students. Unless you never know, maybe a car broke down and it changed whether they were able to keep working or not, things like that. Sometimes small amounts really can have a big difference. 

    My point is that we heard from the surveys that often it was more, almost symbolic. It affirmed the recipients’ belief in their ability to move forward. And so I think one of the big takeaways from our partnership — and I will credit you and José forever — is around the notion of confidence, stability, and why that matters. It feels sort of ephemeral in terms of, “Do you feel confident about the future?” But it does, it does matter. The research showed it. And it aligns with other research out there and my experiences in the field as well. 

    That investment in students’ confidence in themselves and their confidence in the future — our CEO at College Futures says we’re in the business of hope in philanthropy — it really is that. Emergency aid, these small dollars can help change people’s lives in those kinds of ways, can help push them forward when things feel really hard. And make them feel like they’re not all alone.

    ALEX: Well, wonderful. Thank you so much, April. We really appreciate you joining us and talking with us today.

    APRIL: It’s my pleasure and I’m so grateful for this partnership.

    ROCIO: Thanks for listening to Cafecito con MAF. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you listen to podcasts, so you can catch the next episode as soon as it’s posted.

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