Kayla Oakes, a sophomore at Moravian College, received an emergency grant to help her stay in school after her mother died last summer. An increasing number of colleges are offering hardship or emergency grants to help keep students in school when they face sudden financial problems. (Sean Simmers/For The Washington Post)

A month from the start of her sophomore year, Kayla Oakes had no idea whether she’d be able to return to college. Her mother had recently succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver, and the future was suddenly uncertain for the 19-year-old and her siblings.

“While trying to cope with the pain and the loss of my mom, we had to figure out so many things — her service, bills to pay, her finances and most importantly, who was going to take care of us five kids,” Oakes said.

Not wanting to withdraw from Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., Oakes reached out to a school adviser who encouraged her to apply for an emergency grant program. With a one-time award of $1,300 from Moravian, Oakes was able to buy books and cover some of her tuition.

“It was a big help,” said Oakes, who is studying to be a science teacher.

One unforeseen hardship can derail a college student’s dream of getting a degree, so an increasing number of U.S. schools are providing emergency grants to pull such students back from the edge.

Kayla Oakes, right, hangs out in her dorm room with friends Julianne Shino and Kristin Bertholf. The emergency grant “was a big help,” said Oakes, who is studying to be a science teacher. (Sean Simmers/For The Washington Post)

The Obama administration is paying closer attention to barriers to college completion amid efforts to increase the number of U.S. college graduates. A recent proposal to expand the Pell grant program for needy students includes an increase in awards to those taking a full course load, with the goal of accelerating degree completion and minimizing debt afterward.

College graduates enjoy higher wages and lower unemployment rates than people who complete their education with a high school diploma. Dropping out of college, however, could ruin those economic prospects, placing those with student loans at greater risk of falling behind on payments. Studies show that nearly two-thirds of students who quit school leave because of trouble with money, often small financial setbacks.

But education experts say the federal financial aid system might not be nimble enough to respond to sudden economic threats to college completion, such as a death in the family, a job loss or even something as mundane as a car repair.

“We just had a huge financial crisis, and schools recognize that there are families that have this sort of acute need that wouldn’t be reflected when they filled out the financial aid application,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “Schools are also experimenting with emergency aid to increase retention and completion rates.”

While students at Moravian can appeal for more aid if their financial circumstances change, officials at the small, private, liberal arts college still recognized a need for a faster way to help students, said Dennis P. Levy, the school’s director of financial aid services.

“The economy of the last eight years has been unforgiving to families,” he said. “We’re very sensitive to the needs of our students. It’s always heartbreaking when somebody’s educational goals are interrupted by unforeseen circumstances, so we work hard not to let that happen.”

Moravian established Mo’s Fund, named after the college president’s dog, in 2014 because, as its website says, students “sometimes need to be rescued,” just like the greyhound. (The school’s mascot also is a greyhound.) Students must be enrolled full time to qualify for the assistance, and they must submit documentation — a death certificate or foreclosure notice, for example — to support claims of financial hardship.

The college defines hardship as any event that affects a student’s ability to meet basic living expenses; those events can include medical costs not covered by insurance. The fund is supported by charitable donations, with a maximum award of $1,500 per student each year. So far this year, the school of about 1,700 undergraduates has granted 15 awards, Levy said.

From the outset, Moravian made a concerted effort to advertise Mo’s Fund, making sure students were aware of the lifeline and encouraging alumni to contribute.

Education experts say one of the biggest problems with emergency aid programs is that students are unaware of their existence. A study by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a higher-education research unit at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, found that colleges primarily rely on faculty members or advisers to spread the word. But that approach might shut out students who are too embarrassed to seek help.

Evan Rusca said he learned about the emergency aid program at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., only when he petitioned the school for more money during his sophomore year.

“I didn’t know it was a thing — no one I talk to knows it exists,” said Rusca, a senior majoring in economics and Japanese. “I’m grateful, but that’s my one complaint.”

After submitting letters of recommendation from his professors to bolster his case, Rusca received $10,000 from the Furman United fund. The program, backed by charitable contributions, has given more than $876,000 to 181 students in the past eight years.

“We want to be open but have to be careful of students thinking there’s this institutional aid and anybody can apply for it,” said Forrest Stuart, director of financial aid at Furman. “We don’t always get it right . . . it’s just a fine line because it’s not an unlimited source of funds.”

Stuart said there is no formal application process for the one-time grant, though students must provide documentation to support their claims. Decisions often hinge on one-on-one conversations with students, he said.

There is a lot of variation in the way colleges structure and run emergency aid programs. Researchers at the HOPE Lab found that some cover rent, utilities and child care, but not tuition or books. They also noticed that schools rarely track the recurrence or types of requests, information that could determine whether longer-term solutions are needed.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently gave NASPA, an association of student affairs administrators, funding to research existing emergency aid programs, encouraging the development of best practices for schools to emulate.

“We’re trying to build awareness and a framework that allows institutions to know their own data so they can gauge the return on investment,” said Sarah Bauder, senior program officer at the Gates Foundation.

Amelia Parnell, vice president for research and policy at NASPA, said her team is wrapping up a survey of 5,000 schools to determine the prevalence of emergency aid programs and how they are run. She said that many campuses have had programs in place for years but that they could streamline their processes through some form of automation.

“Campuses can start to mine their own data to figure out which students, based on a number of factors, might be most helped with this type of aid,” Parnell said.

A new report from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities encourages schools to use predictive analytics to identify at-risk students and to track their progress after they’ve received grants. The suggestions are part of guidelines for schools interested in using small grants to improve retention and completion. The report highlights several schools with successful programs, including Virginia Commonwealth University. The Richmond school has a program that uses big data to flag students nearing graduation who have not registered for their final semester. If they owe $5,000 or less and are in good academic standing, VCU kicks in the cash.

As Oakes winds down her sophomore year at Moravian, there is still a nagging question of whether she’ll be able to cover tuition, books and housing next year. She has a $10,000 academic scholarship, federal grants and loans, and is working to pay for living expenses. Her grandparents try to help the best they can, but Oakes says she’s not sure she can continue to rely on them.

“I’m going to schedule an appointment with my counselor to see if there is anything else I can do,” she said. “Getting this degree is very important. I want to do it for the better of my family, for my brothers and sister to have something to look up to.”

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