HUNDREDS of colleges are being forced to raid their already depleted reserves to find cash for hard-up students.
Most have launched emergency programmes to raise the money. They are creating part-time job-recruitment clubs on campus, proffering begging bowls to charities and negotiating short-term loans with banks -- with the college accepting liabilty.
Directors of student services say they are losing recruits, typically, "for the want of a pound;70 bus pass".
The support crisis in the sector has been caused by the introduction of a pilot scheme which is supposed to widen access to education to students from low-income families. But local support cash was pooled into a pound;100 million national fund to pay for the three-year education maintenance allowances (EMAs), leaving most colleges with virtually nothing.
Adding to the problem are the changes made last month in the way students receive grants and other financial support. These have had a devastating effect on poorer families outside the 12 pilot areas.
The pilot EMA gives students up to pound;40 a week to stay in college. More than 11,000 applications have been made. But thousands of others are receiving less following changes to support arrangements. Previously students received cash from their education authority, now the access funds come direct from the Department for Education and Employment via colleges.
The findings, from an Association of Colleges survey, revealed exclusively to The TES, are the first sign that Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett's strategy to encourage more 16 to 19-year-olds not to drop out is having mixed results.
Val Craske, student services director at Blackpool and The Fylde College, told The TES she was pound;200,000 down since the switch. "We were not able to plan for this because we were not told about the access funds until the end of July."
Moreover, efforts to assist with transport were further hit when one of the two LEAs which had supported students scrapped a pound;37,000 travel budget. Funds for EMAs, travel grants and luncheon vouchers, which helped almost 1,000 students last year, have vanished.
"We will be lucky to have in the region of pound;10,000 in our hardship fund. We do understand the problem the Government faces in trying to solve the student support problem, but I am equally concerned about the effect this is likely to have on retention," she said.
The AOC questionnaire, which was answered by 104 colleges, was originally designed to find out about increased administration burdens. But, of the 47 colleges which made additional comments, 43 per cent said they had suffered a decrease in access fund allocations. Nineteen colleges were unhappy with the late timing of information and funding allocations and five were concerned about the provision of support for travel. Only two colleges praised the new system.
The wider survey revealed further concerns about financial support. Almost one in 10 LEAs is not supplying travel subsidies and about three-quarters of the colleges reported experiencing an increased burden as a result of their LEA's transport policies.
There are also mixed messages over the EMAs. Seventeen of the colleges which responded are involved in the pilots and of those six said they had been set up too late for there to be any real impact on recruitment and six reported a possible increase in student numbers and retention. One-third of responding colleges said that students outside the pilots could be discontented and some are considering offering bursaries.