For four and a half years, Kent State student Sydney Sharps managed to scrape by, paying her tuition with loans and out-or-pocket installments.
"I had to work seven days a week, anywhere between 50 and 60 hours a week, as well as go to school fulltime," says Sharps.
As a server, bartender, and graphic designer, she says it was tough, but she always seemed to make her payments.
That is, until she had to take time off of work during her Junior year, in order to have knee surgery.
"They started sending me the bills for everything before I was even able to walk again," says Sharps. "So I started working before I was supposed to."
Bills continued to pile up, and by February of this year -- in her final semester -- Sharps thought she may have to drop out.
"I didn't think I was going to make it," she says. "I had my car, I had my medical bills, I had rent, I had the school bill and all of that added up to over $3,000 a month."
That's when Sydney got an email that she says changed her life.
It said she was being awarded a College Completion Grant -- money specifically given to students who encounter financial need during their last two semesters of schooling.
The helping hand came from the Kent Completion and Success Program, funded by a grant from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation. The program provides support to help seniors complete their degrees, with an added focus on low-income students, students who experience financial emergencies, students of color and first-generation students.
Within a few days, a representative was in touch with Sharps.
"They were asking me how much I owed, and I still owed $1100-1200," says Sharps. "And they were like we’ll see about us covering all of that! It was absolutely amazing."
The new initiative started just this past fall. In the first two semesters, the university has given awards to 180 students, totaling $300,000.
"We know a lot of times students end up stopping out or dropping out at the end of their college career, because they don’t have the funds," says N.J. Akbar, who oversees the initiative as assistant dean of the school's University College.
While there are grants and other money that a student can apply for, these completion grants are simply "gifted" by the university to deserving, but unsuspecting students.
"We apply the fund onto their account without them having to do anything," says Akbar. "They don't have to fill out a form, or raise their hand and say 'Hey can you help me?' We actually look at all of the students and data, and I partner with multiple offices on campus to select the right students."
Ideal candidates are students who have a history of paying out-of-pocket for tuition and have maxed out on the financial aid they can receive from other places. They are in good academic standing and are on track to earn a degree within two semesters.
"It’s because we believe in them, and we know it’s the right thing to do," says Akbar. "Why not invest in them at this point, when they need to get to that next step, which is graduation, one more milestone in their pathway to solving some of the world’s next problems?"
It's a program that not only benefits the students, but can also help universities increase their graduation rates.
"One student actually said they prayed the night before that they could figure out how to stay in school," says Akbar. "The next day we applied their funds, right before their classes were going to be dropped."
The university plans to continue the program, hoping they can help more students each year. During the upcoming summer semester, another 50 Kent State seniors will get completion grants to help get them to graduation.
For many students, it may be the only pathway towards getting that degree.
Just ask Sydney Sharps.
"This is it, I'm graduating next week. And I almost didn't make it," says Sharps. "I'm so ready! I want to do my happy dance across the stage."