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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

MATC faculty-run emergency aid program sees increased need during pandemic

MATC's downtown Milwaukee campus.
Emily Files
MATC's downtown Milwaukee campus.

Milwaukee Area Technical College, or MATC, serves mostly low-income students and students of color. The students face many barriers on the path to graduation: just 28% of full-time MATC students graduate or transfer within three years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Instructors at MATC wanted to do something to help students overcome financial challenges and stay enrolled. So, in 2016, the Local 212 faculty union set up an emergency financial aid fund. Last school year, the FAST Fund gave grants averaging about $200 to 443 students.

"Faculty are on the front lines with students," FAST Fund executive director and part-time MATC Spanish instructor Liz Franczyk said. "We're the ones in the classroom seeing the students struggling because they don't have enough food or they can't find secure housing or they can't afford the textbook."

The process to apply for the FAST Fund is meant to be easy and fast. Unlike the MATC-run Dreamkeepers emergency grant program, students do not need to be eligible for federal Pell grants and have a 2.0 GPA to receive aid.

"Our goal is to provide quick, emergency grants to students so they stay in school," Franczyk said. "It can be help with tuition, books, car payments, rent."

Iuscely Flores, a student in MATC's nail technician program, received aid from the FAST Fund in January. Because she's a DACA recipient, she doesn’t qualify for federal financial aid in the form of Pell grants.

Flores said she found out in the first week of classes that she would need to buy a $1,300 kit for the nail tech program. Her car had recently been stolen, and she helps support family members who live in Mexico, which made the $1,300 expense intimidating.

"Thirteen-hundred dollars that I either had to choose to use to buy a new kit, pay rent, save for a new car or send money to my parents," Flores said.

She told her instructor about her concerns, and was referred to Dreamkeepers and the FAST Fund. Because Flores is undocumented, she wasn't eligible for Dreamkeepers. She turned to the FAST Fund.

"They are fast. I applied, two days later part of my kit was paid for," Flores said. "It was like no questions asked, we trust you."

The FAST Fund is mostly supported by private donations, according to Franczyk. It's grown from helping 26 students in the 2016-17 school year to 390 in the first half of the 2021-22 school year.

"We've seen a greater need since the pandemic, but at the same time I think all the pandemic did is exacerbated an already existing issue," Franczyk said. "That need was there, it just got worse."

During the pandemic, the issue of college affordability has garnered more attention. President Joe Biden proposed making community college free. UW System Interim President Tommy Thompson wanted to expand a UW-Madison tuition "promise" program to all UW schools. Neither proposal has come to fruition.

Franczyk said the FAST Fund is just a "band-aid" in a higher education system filled with hurdles for low-income and moderate-income students.

Emily does education reporting as well as general news editing at WUWM.
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