$5 million pledge creates new Student Emergency Fund

Overhead photo of student studying at desk

It’s been a year since COVID-19 forced big changes across higher education and began creating hardships for many students and their families, including financial challenges.

A recent gift from a UO graduate will provide resources so the university can help students cover unexpected expenses — now, and years into the future. The anonymous donor has pledged $5 million to create the new Student Emergency Fund, including current funds to benefit students right away as well as resources for an endowment that will provide support in perpetuity.

“During this unprecedented year, our students faced myriad financial hardships due to COVID-19,” said Kris Winter, associate vice president and dean of students. “We are tremendously grateful to this donor for helping us remove financial barriers and keep more students on track to graduate on time.”

The new fund will create an efficient tool that will benefit students immediately, Winter said. By coordinating their efforts across different areas of the university, staff members will assist students more effectively, working in tandem to solve problems quickly.

A separate fund created by UO parents in 2018 helped the Office of the Dean of Students respond to a dramatic increase over the past year in requests for help with rent, groceries, medical bills and other expenses. So far, the university has funded nearly $1 million of approximately $2.3 million in student requests.

The new Student Emergency Fund will also help students with unexpected hardships. But there’s one critical difference — it also covers academic costs. This flexibility will allow the university to allocate resources more effectively, in good times and bad.

Acute shortfalls can delay progress toward a degree, whether those are the result of a global crisis such as the pandemic or unexpected financial challenges facing one family, said Jim Brooks, associate vice president and director of financial aid. These bumps in the road aren’t worth stopping out — or dropping out— of the university, he added. The ultimate goal is to solve unexpected financial obstacles and position students for success.

“We are tremendously grateful and relieved to have this resource,” Brooks said. “This is an important part of our student success plan and an inspiring example of the university working with a wonderful philanthropist to change lives for the better.”

By definition, emergencies are unexpected and happen very quickly, Brooks said. No one could have predicted the pandemic, and the university can’t anticipate crises that will affect students in the future. This makes flexible, reliable funding a vital resource.

The anonymous donor is part of a legacy of UO alumni and was inspired by the original efforts of UO parents to offer financial resources for students. The donor gave generously to this earlier-established fund, became more aware of the growing need, and decided to create the new Student Emergency Fund.

It’s the donor’s largest gift to the university to date. Working closely with the donor, UO staff members developed a five year plan to make funds immediately available while gradually building an endowment that will grow and provide resources in perpetuity.

Kimberly Johnson, interim vice provost in the Division of Undergraduate Education and Student Success, said the university’s strategic plan for allocating the resources ultimately means more students will graduate on time. Staff members from financial aid, academic advising and student life will coordinate their efforts to find solutions that fit each unique situation.

“We didn’t want to have this resource housed in just one office,” Johnson said. “We’re collaborating to look at tuition, financial aid, academic requirements and each student’s individual circumstances. We will create customized success plans to help students graduate on time.”

Each of these three areas brings a unique perspective to the student’s situation, and each has its strengths and limitations, Johnson said. Many students need help overcoming obstacles that are related but involve different aspects of the university.

For example, Johnson said, students are sometimes unable to register for classes because they couldn’t pay a fee. Or they may receive the grant they need but enroll in the wrong course, delaying graduation and adding to their financial problems.

Some students receive financial aid, but this award times out and they lose a crucial resource. Working together, UO staff members will help students navigate obstacles like these and find the best path to a timely graduation.

Johnson added that COVID-19 has not created a new problem, but it exacerbated issues that were already prevalent. Before the virus hit, students were facing challenges meeting basic needs. She also emphasizes that a little help goes a long way. Often, Johnson said, a relatively small grant of less than $1,000 can mean the difference between dropping out or earning a degree.

Most families don’t have the resources they had 20 years ago, she said. And all the costs related to attending college have increased. By collaborating strategically and leveraging the funding, the university will make the most of this new donor-funded resource, helping more students graduate on time.

The university is seeking gifts to build the Student Emergency Fund and help students, regardless of what the future may bring. To make a gift or learn more about giving, contact Jen Parker, jeparker@uoregon.edu, 541-346-8018.

By Ed Dorsch, University Communications