Before COVID-19, we knew that the high cost of attending college is a barrier that prevents many students from completing college. A
conducted by Strada Education Network and Lumina Foundation found that 31 million people have stopped out of college in the past two decades in the US
often due to financial pressures.
Today, the pressure is even greater. The impact of the prolonged pandemic has negatively impacted an unprecedented—and to-date, still unknown—number of students, many with children and families to support. During this economic and public health crisis, these students increasingly face the growing challenge of choosing to provide for their basic needs, such as food, housing and healthcare, or paying for school-related expenses.
Edquity, a student-centered solution has been supporting students in crisis even before the pandemic.
First launched in 2016 by founder David Helene as a college financial planning tool for K-12 students, the company has evolved into a critical player that supports postsecondary students by providing: rapid emergency aid during financial crises within 48 hours (24 hours during the pandemic), financial budgeting support and day-to-day cash flow management, and access to a central repository for financial and support services on- and off-campus.
Edquity was a recent winner of the Rise Prize, a student parent innovation competition we managed and funded in partnership with Lumina Foundation and leading partner organizations. The competition awarded a total of $1.55 million to 15 organizations out of more than 300 original applications for solutions that help student parents and their children succeed. This was in addition to the first investment we made to Edquity in 2019.
Our team at Imaginable Futures recently connected with David to hear how Edquity has been scaling up its efforts since March to help students during the pandemic; and what his vision is for Edquity beyond the pandemic. We share highlights of our conversation here.
Imaginable Futures: You founded Edquity – What inspires you and motivates you?
David Helene: In 2012, given the trends around ballooning student debt and growing gaps in affordability and access in postsecondary education, I wanted to work at the intersection of financial affordability and postsecondary outcomes and success; and use education as a pathway to wealth generation and social mobility for underinvested communities. That’s when I started a nonprofit access organization, where I worked with 400 students around financial planning for college. During my time there, I was first connected to Dr. Sara-Goldrick-Rab of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, who helped me understand that many of these issues are fundamentally structural, and the framework of trying to support students around planning puts the onus on students to solve a policy problem, which is fundamentally unfair. Students can go through a perfect planning exercise and find themselves still financially insolvent because of how education financing is set up in this country. That motivated me to figure out: A) How can we streamline access to a broader and wider safety net? B) How we can increase the size of the safety net? and C) How can we use practice to inform broader policy and make sure that we can actually change the fundamental structure that is perpetuating intergenerational wealth gaps?
IF: Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, how has Edquity adapted to the new environment?
DH: We have been forced to meet the moment. We had to expedite our product road map and ability to serve more institutions and students. In March, we were working with one single partner, Dallas College. Since then, we have rapidly scaled to bring on four additional partners – and we will soon be serving 23 colleges! As a result, we’ve received an over 1500% increase in application volume. Students have on average applied in less than seven minutes, heard a response from Edquity in under four hours, and received their funds in under 24 hours! By March 2020, we had processed nearly 1,000 applicants at Dallas College. Today, we’ve processed close to 20,000 applications! This is something we were not planning to do, but we were able to grow and scale with no service outages -- you always worry when you scale quickly that the technology will fail, as we’d seen this with other emergency response programs. Fortunately, we scaled quickly and reliably.
IF: Is there anything else Edquity is doing to help students navigate these unprecedented times?
DH: In late March, we launched a new microsite (https://www.covidcollegesupport.com/) in the wake of COVID to ensure we could provide a rapid resource response that went beyond administering emergency aid. The microsite has resources across parenting, child care, legal needs, food, housing, physical and mental health, and more. Examples of resources for student parents include where to find free or affordable local child care and diapers, activities for kids and mindfulness resources for families.
IF: How has the racial injustice we’re seeing here in the U.S. impacted your work?
DH:. Race has always been at the center of retention gaps, and as an organization with an explicit value to be anti-racist, we have always framed our work through a racial equity lens. Food and housing insecurity disproportionately affect Black, Latinx, Indigenous students, female students, student parents, former foster youth and more. With the recent national protests in the wake of police violence, the last three months hasve shown that this work is as important than ever. Wee want to make sure we use this moment and the attention on structural issues of race to upen those structures in place and advocate for policies that will contribute to more equitable postsecondary outcomes.
IF: Do you have any stories of how you are impacting student parents?
DH: We know that 61% of the students we’ve funded since the pandemic are student parents. For example, there was a student from Dallas College, who is a mother of 3. She had lost her job due to the pandemic, and we were able to provide her timely funding. While we don't ask those that use our services for receipts and proof of spending, I am always happy to hear that Edquity can help students at these critical times where they need this emergency funding for themselves and their families.
IF: What’s in store for the future of Edquity – now and beyond the pandemic? What is your ultimate vision for Edquity?
DH: First and foremost, we will continue to grow in the postsecondary world, and we plan to scale to 100 more colleges in the next year. Before the pandemic, emergency aid was growing as a best practice; now, legislators are recognizing the essential need for emergency aid as a police response. With proposed legislation already in Congress and emergency aid as a pillar of Vice President Biden’s presidential platform, we’re expecting more federal emergency aid to be made available and we will be ready and poised to help higher education institutions administer these funds. Further, the causes within higher education are really a microcosm of broader financial issues that working Americans face. We are currently exploring the intersectionality between employers and postsecondary education, municipalities and local community college districts, and are thinking through how conditional and unconditional cash transfer programs can support low-wage workers. We think that we are well- positioned to grow both within and outside of postsecondary education. We’re looking forward to helping more Americans have the fundamental resources not only to survive, but to thrive!