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The car breaks down and the repair costs a few hundred dollars. A medical problem leads to a pricey bill. A family emergency means having to buy a plane ticket on short notice.

For college students who don’t come from well-off backgrounds, those costs — often just a few hundred dollars — can be more than just a headache, college officials say. They can put students behind in their classes, and even lead them to leave school entirely.

That’s why Madison Area Technical College has made “emergency grants” available to students who face unexpected expenses, said Keith Cornille, MATC senior vice president for student development. The relatively small sums of money see students through those challenges, Cornille and others say, and can keep them on track to get a degree.

“These grants help students who are on the cusp of dropping out stay in school,” said Amy Kerwin, vice president of community investments at the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation, which helps fund emergency grant programs at MATC and nine other technical colleges in Wisconsin.

Now Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans in the Legislature want to expand programs like the one at MATC by providing $450,000 in state funding for emergency grants at technical colleges and the University of Wisconsin System’s two-year campuses. If the bill passes, experts say, it could make Wisconsin the first state in the country to fund such programs.

The proposal is one of six bills introduced this month as part of a package of legislation Walker and his colleagues say will help make college more affordable for students and their families.

Other bills in the package would increase funding for need-based aid to technical college students, give a tax break to some borrowers paying back their student loans, hire coordinators to connect students with internships at local businesses and require students to attend financial literacy seminars so they better understand the debt they are taking on to attend school.

Officials with the UW and technical college systems voiced their support for the proposals at a meeting of the state Assembly’s higher education committee on Thursday.

But state Democrats have called the bills “window dressing” that doesn’t do nearly enough to address student loan debt. They have proposed legislation that would allow college graduates to refinance their debt; that bill has gone nowhere in the Republican-backed Legislature.

The author of the emergency grants bill, state Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville, countered that the Republican proposals are a better way to fight education loan debt, because they aim to lower the amount of money students must borrow in the first place.

Murphy said expanding emergency grant programs in particular will help students at two-year colleges, who he said are often on a “shoestring” budget, when they face challenges such as car repairs.

“We have students that drop out because they have an emergency like that and can’t get to school,” Murphy told the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, which he leads. “We’re looking at increasing that retention rate of students, and we’re looking at helping our most vulnerable students.”

Sara Goldrick-Rab — a UW-Madison professor and frequent Walker critic who studies issues that affect low-income college students — said Democrats shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the Republican-backed proposals.

Those bills won’t be enough to stem rising college costs, Goldrick-Rab said, but they will still increase the aid to students who could really use it.

“There’s really no question that the need is there,” she said. “These are back-end band-aids … (but) I’ll take the band aid.

“This is a good start.”

Other aid not enough

Students generally wind up needing emergency money because the grants, scholarships and loans that make up their financial aid package aren’t flexible enough to deal with the unexpected costs that can emerge in the middle of the school year, Goldrick-Rab said.

“The money comes at the beginning of the term, and it’s for certain things, and it’s often too little, and it often runs out,” she said of financial aid.

People who work in financial aid or student services offices have long known that, Goldrick-Rab said.

When students have faced financial challenges out of the blue, she said, some school officials would help them out informally with a few dollars here or there for gas or groceries.

Over the past decade, she said, a growing number of colleges and universities have made that aid more formal with emergency grant programs.

More than 100 institutions provide emergency money to students, according to a report from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, where Goldrick-Rab is executive director.

Forty-four of those colleges and universities are funded by the Minnesota-based education philanthropy Scholarship America, which started offering emergency grants in 2004.

At MATC, also known as Madison College, students who need an emergency grant apply to the college’s Office of Financial Student Support.

They fill out a form and must meet with a counselor to receive a grant, which the college pays directly to the third party who is owed money.

Like many existing emergency grant programs, the bill in the Legislature would limit the aid students could receive and what it could pay for.

The bill allows for students to get as many as two grants, worth up to a combined $500, in each school year; the program would bar them from using the money to pay for tuition, textbooks, groceries and other recurring costs.

Keep students in school

Between 2012 and 2015, schools participating in the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation’s emergency aid program gave students 2,654 grants, worth about $550 on average.

Great Lakes has awarded $1.5 million in grants to 31 Midwestern colleges for the next three years, including nearly $80,000 to MATC.

The amount of money students request through the grant program might not seem like much, Cornille said.

Critics of the bill say it pales in comparison to the large cost of attending college.

But Cornille recalled a nursing student who was in the middle of her practicum — a mandatory internship at a hospital — when her car broke down. If she couldn’t pay for her car repair, she couldn’t finish her practicum; if she couldn’t finish that, she couldn’t complete her program and graduate.

Instead, the college gave her the money she needed, Cornille said, and the student got her degree.

“People just need a little help in the moment,” Cornille said. “Without programs like this, that person stops.”

Research on how effective the programs have been is limited, Goldrick-Rab said.

But Great Lakes found colleges retained or graduated 73 percent of students who received emergency loans, Kerwin said, compared to 67 percent retention for low-income students as a whole.

The emergency-grant bill would require colleges to track how students fared after receiving a grant.

Bill would expand support

Emergency aid programs such as the one at MATC are typically funded by donors or grants from philanthropic organizations, not by taxpayer dollars or student fees.

The bill under consideration in the state Legislature would use public money to fund the grants, giving $320,000 to technical colleges and $130,000 to UW Colleges.

Four-year UW System campuses won’t receive funding, Murphy said, because he wanted to start providing state support to grant programs at schools where students’ need tends to be greatest. Funding could be expanded to include four-year campuses in the future, he said.

UW-Madison doesn’t offer emergency grants, but its Dean of Students office makes interest-free loans of up to $500 for similar expenses available to students.

Neither Goldrick-Rab nor Dustin Weeden, a senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, knew of a program that used state funding for emergency grants, as Wisconsin’s would.

But Weeden said the programs could become more popular as universities look to make sure they retain and graduate more of their students, and more states base higher education funding on student success.

“Institutions are trying to be much more proactive … about student success, and helping students complete their degrees once they enroll,” Weeden said.

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.