When Sara Goldrick-Rab got the call, she knew instantly what she had to do.
The Temple University education policy professor had just learned she won a prestigious award from the University of Louisville for her book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream and her research and advocacy on behalf of low-income college students, including those who are hungry and homeless.
The award, announced last month, carries a cash prize — $100,000. She could spend it on a beach house, extravagant trips, or a college fund for her own two children, now 7 and 10.
Instead, Goldrick-Rab decided the money should go to the kinds of students she researches and writes about.
"I felt I had built a career with the help of all of these people who don't have money," she said. "I can only tell their stories because they told them to me."
When her book came out about a year ago, she set up a fund to help college students who run into financial emergencies — the kinds of emergencies that the traditional financial aid system doesn't address — and who need a little help to stay in school. She contributed $15,000 from her speaking fees to go to her "FAST fund," which stands for Faculty And Students Together.
Now, the fund will get a real boost — her $100,000 prize — when she collects the Grawemeyer Award in the spring. She's also challenged others to donate, offering a 3-to-1 match until the prize money is used up.
By last week, donations were rolling in.
"We have raised $21k and I matched it with $63k – keep going!" Goldrick-Rab tweeted Sunday. "I have $100k to spend."
The fund supports students at a handful of colleges, none local, but Goldrick-Rab said with the new infusion of cash she hopes to add Community College of Philadelphia and Temple.
At each college, a faculty member whom Goldrick-Rab has met through her research at her prior employer, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, receives the funds. The faculty then distributes the money to students in need for whatever problem is impeding their education.
"It's a bill to fix a car. It's a water bill. It's the internet being turned off so they can't do their homework," she said.
At one school, the Milwaukee Area Technical College, the fund paid a $300 early childhood licensing fee for a student who wanted to begin work, she said. At another, it paid for a large supply of nutritional energy bars, she said.
At each school, faculty members help to raise more money to support students, she said.
Her goal is to inspire colleges to develop flexible emergency aid programs that respond to students' needs. Although many colleges provide emergency aid, she said she has found that the funds often don't get into students' hands when needed.
Her fund, she said, "cuts out the bureaucracy and puts money in the hands of teachers around the country — the people on the front line of this fight — in order to get emergency dollars to students swiftly."
Colleagues locally and afar have praised her work — and donated.
"She is putting her money where her mouth is in a way that few, if any, people in her position ever do," said Douglas Webber, director of graduate studies and an associate professor in Temple's Department of Economics.
Goldrick-Rab, 40, came to Temple a year and a half ago from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she started and led a research lab that delved into homelessness on campus and other barriers to affording college. She already had a national reputation, and at Temple she quickly brought in multiple research grants totaling more than $6 million, a feat achieved by few Temple professors, especially early on.
In October, she hosted a national conference at Temple, called "#Real College," that drew 400 participants, all brainstorming ways to help students afford college.
"There was a moment at the conference when one of our homeless students stood up and said how many in this audience have experienced homelessness," she said, "and 10 percent of the room stood up, including people I've known for a long time and didn't know they experienced that."
They included experts and policymakers.
At Temple, Goldrick-Rab quickly met students who struggle with the problems she researches.
Like Sarah Levine, 22, a senior neuroscience major from Manahawkin, N.J., who introduced herself shortly after Goldrick-Rab arrived.
"I was the foster child of all of her research," Levine said.
Levine's parents have had financial difficulties that has left her at times struggling to pay for college and get enough to eat. Once, she said, a local grocer caught her swiping an avocado – she was conscious of the need for good nutrition.
Levine, works two jobs — last summer more than 80 hours a week — and is determined to stay in school, said Goldrick-Rab has inspired her.
"She is an amazing mentor and human being and total powerhouse," Levine said. "She listens to students. She listens to what their needs are, instead of just being a researcher with a Ph.D."
Levine accompanied Goldrick-Rab to Washington, D.C., earlier this month for a congressional briefing on hunger in college.
Goldrick-Rab's goal is to eventually drive policy change so that the FAST fund no longer will be needed. She wants to do that by getting more college students access to food stamps (most currently are not eligible) and improving emergency aid funds on campuses.
At the congressional hearing, she told legislators of the severity of the problem.