This month, California legislators made news when they opted to provide community-college students with nearly $500 million in emergency financial assistance, a recognition of the extreme poverty and instability some students face.

Turns out, something similar is happening in Washington, but at a smaller scale — and leaders of two-year Washington schools are working to give more to their students, too.

New legislation in California allows community colleges to dip into an existing $475.2 million Student Equity and Achievement Program fund, and use the aid for emergency assistance grants, according to Inside Higher Ed.

The fund was previously earmarked for student success services, including tutoring, peer mentoring programs and equity-focused professional development for faculty, according to Inside Higher Ed — but individual students weren’t able to use it.

Now, community colleges can tap into the money to use for their students at risk of dropping out of school — and face an unexpected financial burden, like a sudden eviction or a medical emergency. It’s not meant to support a long-term financial challenge.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bills Friday.

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In Washington, community-college officials are excited for the growing attention to emergency assistance programs.

“We see it as reinforcing this national discussion around what the real college student is these days,” said Erin Frasier, a policy associate at the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges. “We have to not just rely on tuition assistance alone, but ensure we’re providing equitable access and more holistic support.”

Last year, seven in 10 community-college students experienced food or housing insecurity, compared to about six in 10 four-year students, according to a 2019 national survey from the Hope Center.

The Washington Legislature approved a similar bill earlier this year, one that Frasier called a “game-changer.”

Although it gave access to a much smaller sum — $1.5 million over the next two years — the Washington bill is similar to the California program. It awards grants to community-college students at risk of dropping out of school because of an unforeseen issue, said Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent, who led the push for the legislation. Schools must apply for the funding by proposing a system that quickly and fairly serves students in need, but the goal is to make the process as low-barrier as possible, Entenman said.

“We also have a stigma against people who are attending community and technical colleges, like it’s not real school or it’s like a second choice,” Entenman said. “I think community college is a first choice for many students … And given the right support, our students are just as successful.”

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Colleges can apply for emergency grant money through the State Board until Oct. 24. Once the board allocates funds, the schools can then distribute the money to eligible students.

The emergency aid comes as Washington doubles down on college affordability. During the last legislative session, the state passed a sweeping financial aid bill intended to help families who make up to the state’s median income by paying for a portion or all of a student’s tuition. It’s expected to help about 110,000 students go to college each year.

While the extra aid will increase access for students, Frasier said, several emergency aid programs are already set up in most Washington community colleges, including Bellevue College, Cascadia College, Clark College, Shoreline Community College, Tacoma Community College and Seattle Central College. Many develop their own foundations to spearhead the project.

Most programs require that eligible students are in good academic standing, have a long-term financial sustainability plan and are taking a certain number of credits — stipulations similar to those in California.

The Shoreline Community College Foundation raised about $125,000 for students last year, with support from local nonprofit United Way of King County.

“The ultimate goal is to keep the student in school and have them not drop out because of an unexpected financial emergency,” said Mary Brueggeman, the foundation’s executive director. “Many of them are working … and they’re already doing the best they can and trying to make ends meet.”

The State Board of Community and Technical Colleges doesn’t currently track how many students in Washington use emergency assistance programs at their schools, but Shoreline Community College officials reported they helped more than 100 students stay in school last year.

Molly Mitchell, who directs Seattle Central College’s student support programs and is running for a Seattle School Board position, said she wants to expand the idea beyond the effort to help students who face “unforeseen circumstances.”

“When you’re living in poverty, sometimes it’s not unforeseen,” she said. “It’s ongoing.”

The college doesn’t fund continual issues like covering a student’s rent month after month, but Mitchell said her office tries to identify students who might have longer-term financial struggles and connect them with community resources. She also makes sure students are checking off all the boxes that could help put money in their pocket, like filing a FAFSA form (federal student aid) or submitting their tax returns.

Sometimes it’s a difficult balance to find — while program supervisors want to help students succeed, they also don’t want them to become too dependent on the aid, Mitchell said. Seattle Central College does limit its emergency funds to $1,000 a year per student, but recently students have been coming back on a more regular basis.

“If someone’s applying for the third quarter in a row … then we do a deeper dive,” she said. “We’re just going to have to look at other resources.”