Fast-tracking stimulus payments to students
After COVID-19 upended life on campus, Stillman College worked quickly to distribute funds to its scattered student population.
Like many of her colleagues, Stillman College President Cynthia Warrick faced uncharted waters when the COVID-19 pandemic hit this spring. As campus life came to a halt in March — along with the jobs many students depended on — Warrick focused on providing as much support as possible to help her students weather the uncertainty.
Stillman College received $1.2 million as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which allocated $14 billion to colleges and universities across the country in April. Of the funds earmarked for students, Stillman purchased laptops for those in need to finish the semester online, as well as health care benefits that included free telemedicine options.
The college felt it was equally important to get CARES Act funds directly into the hands of students before their next month’s rent and bills came due on May 1.
“The reality is that 80% of our students are Pell Grant eligible, which means that their household income is $30,000 or less,” Warrick said of the roughly 800-person student body in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “We wanted to get the money to them as quickly as possible.”
Once the Stillman COVID-19 Leadership Task Force decided that all eligible students would receive $500 grants, Warrick reached out to Wells Fargo to help distribute the funds. The bank had a longstanding relationship handling Stillman’s basic treasury needs. Additionally, Wells Fargo had experience working with the United Negro College Fund, which provides a wide range of support for the 37 private historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, which are members, including Stillman.
As the pandemic disrupted normal operations across the country, mailing checks became problematic — it would take too long to track down addresses for a student population that was now scattered, with three-quarters of them electing to finish the semester from home. Checks would also require students to go into a bank unless they had mobile banking service.
Keith Callahan, a Wells Fargo Treasury Management sales consultant, helped the school zero in on the most effective option: Disbursements with Zelle®, which could immediately send money to students’ bank accounts using only their email address or mobile phone number.
Callahan called Zelle the “perfect solution to fit this need for this specific population — a younger generation that is comfortable with digital payments.”
Though the setup can take six to eight weeks for some clients, the Treasury group was able to offer a prepackaged solution that contains only the most essential functions. This package, combined with the college’s immediate access to students’ email addresses and phone numbers, allowed them to streamline the process to just two weeks to hit Warrick’s target implementation date.
“The entire team recognized the urgency of the situation,” said Wells Fargo Sales Consultant Gwen Perkins. “Our goal was to exceed the customer’s expectations, knowing they were looking to act quickly to help their students,” added Callahan.
Having an immediate impact
Azurelanndria Florence, who will be a junior this coming semester, had fallen behind on her car payment and insurance after losing her part-time job due to the pandemic. She stayed in campus-supported housing until the end of the spring semester in May before returning home to live with her grandmother in nearby Greensboro, Alabama.
“The money went by really fast, but it was able to help catch me up on bills, buy food, get essentials for the house, and books for summer school,” said Florence, who is studying to be an elementary school educator.
Moses Hopson, vice president of Stillman College’s Student Government Association for the past academic year, used his $500 grant for similar basic needs. He’s eager to return to campus for the fall semester with Stillman resuming in-person classes. The college is also offering a hybrid of classroom and online course delivery, as well as fully online course instruction for students who decide to remain at home.
“It’s going to be different, but I’m still excited to be going back and seeing friends again,” said Hopson, a media communications major.
Warrick said student response was overwhelmingly appreciative. “I got emails from students who were very grateful for the help, saying it covered all these things and the funds were easily accessed and arrived at a critical time,” she said.
For Perkins, who happens to be a Stillman alumnus, the joint effort between the school and Wells Fargo to help students represented the camaraderie that defined her college experience.
“What I remember most about the time that I was there was that it was like a family atmosphere,” Perkins said. “It’s an HBCU, which adds another layer of community because of its history. And it was small enough to really know everyone, and the staff and administrators really cared about the students there.”