PULLMAN, Wash.—The Crimson Community Grants (CCG) fund at Washington State University provided a half million dollars to nearly 800 low‑income students statewide to help meet educational and related expenses during a spring semester impacted by the COVID‑19 pandemic, said Michael Highfill, executive director of the Office of Academic Engagement (OAE).

“We are pleased to be able to offer meaningful assistance at this difficult time for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students at all campuses, and to be a resource they can turn to in this unique period,” said Highfill.

The CCG is managed by the OAE, part of the Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement in the Office of the WSU Provost and Executive Vice President.

“We sincerely thank BECU and private donors for generous contributions to this fund and are grateful for WSU matching funds. We also thank our WSU partners, such as Student Financial Services, for working with us to secure the institutional match and make sure the disbursements properly get to students’ accounts in a timely manner.” From time of approval, CCG disbursements take just three to five days.

“It feels good to know we are helping students with $200 to $1,000 awards each to ease their financial crises,” said Kelly Demand, CCG project director. “My team worked long hours, but it’s absolutely rewarding to be able to make such a difference for so many.”

Urgent needs began mid‑March

Demand has guided the CCG fund since it was established in 2017. Highfill collaborated with Associate Vice President of Student Financial Services Brian Dixon and Associate Vice President for Corporate Relations Alex Pietsch to develop the proposal that was successfully funded by BECU, WSU, and donors.

The intent was that the CCG provide small amounts of money to help students get through rough patches that interfered with their academic progress–things that might endanger their continuance as a WSU student, said Highfill. Demand said that in each of the fund’s first two years, around $55,000 was distributed to over 100 students. Student recipients are provided with no‑cost financial education to go along with the direct financial aid, a unique aspect of the CCG support program.

Then in March, in‑person classes at WSU campuses were switched to an online format to prevent close personal contacts while still delivering quality educational experiences. Around the same time, the state implemented a “stay home, stay healthy” mandate, which kept students as well as faculty and staff in their residences. Students who normally had jobs were left with a reduced income, though living and other expenses continued to accumulate.

OAE staff members looked at the CCG application and eased some criteria. They expanded the fund to reach beyond undergraduates to include graduate and professional students on applicable campuses. They also raised the “expected family contribution” limit typically used to define low‑income need from $5,000 to $10,000. Both measures helped to increase the number of eligible students. In concert with other emergency funding raised through generous donations to specifically address student basic needs due to COVID‑19 disruptions, the CCG successfully shifted to help address the pandemic emergency.

The OAE received nearly 1,700 online applications in short order. Students described a wide array of needs, touching on everything from rent and housing to food, from transportation to technology services essential to take classes online, from tuition payments required for registration for next semester to urgent and critical medical supplies, and much more.

“All of the big and little sorts of expenses that having an income would normally cover,” said Highfill. “When COVID‑19 forced us to transition to distance learning, and the lives of students everywhere were disrupted by health concerns, job losses, and a lack of technology to complete their courses, Crimson Community Grants saw an enormous spike in students seeking financial assistance. We simply couldn’t allow a relatively small expense to derail a college dream permanently. These are our future engineers, nurses, teachers. Most importantly, they’re Cougs and we take care of each other.”

Processing and awards continue

Project Director Kelly Demand discusses details of the CCG awards process with student peer advisor Mystique Demyers.

When applications began to stream in, Demand expanded her usual team of two OAE student peer advisors to eight. From mid‑March through mid‑April, they put in long hours to review requests and conduct virtual interviews. By April 30, they had approved over 600 awards totaling just over $413,000.

There are no expectations tied to the awards and no monetary repayments are required. OAE staff does provide resources and informal tips based on the students’ situations, such as information on courses specific to their needs and referrals to the award-winning online personal finance tool iGRAD, Student Financial Services, local food banks, and more. [https://cougarmoneymatters.wsu.edu/]

On July 1, new online applications for money from the CCG began to be accepted, said Highfill.

“We began awarding emergency aid again. We are coordinating with the Office of the Dean of Students and Student Financial Services.”

He said that given the availability and limitation of the CARES Act funding, current efforts are focused on students who are not eligible for that funding—specifically those attending WSU though the Global Campus and undocumented students.

“We will also direct funding in this next year toward student academic needs. For instance, funding to address network connectivity, computer access, books, and other educational supplies,” he said.

Contributions sought

To reach as many students as possible, Highfill said CCG will welcome support from donors.

Those interested can go online to the foundation’s website to make a one‑time or ongoing contribution directly. Donors must type “Crimson Community Grants” in the search bar to donate to this specific program. Those seeking additional information can contact Highfill at michael.highfill@wsu.edu or Demand at kdemand@wsu.edu.

Additional resources and donor information

Highfill noted that students also reached out for support to the university’s Student Emergency Fund that is managed by the Office of the Dean of Students. The WSU Foundation created a webpage for those interested in making gifts to this emergency fund.

Media contacts:

  • Michael Highfill, WSU Office of Academic Engagement (OAE), 509‑335‑9851, michael.highfill@wsu.edu
  • Beverly Makhani, WSU Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement (DAESA), 509‑432‑3430, makhani@wsu.edu