Tuition assistance is a powerful tool—but it’s not much help when the fridge is empty and rent is due.
Unfortunately, far too many college students find themselves in exactly that position month after month. According to the Hope Center’s #RealCollege2021 survey, 58% of American two- and four-year college students experienced basic needs insecurity in 2020, meaning that they lacked access to safe food or housing or experienced homelessness.
And that has real consequences. Three million students drop out of college every year due to a time-sensitive financial crisis of less than $500.
While tuition assistance can make a significant difference, it doesn’t address the underlying causes of drop-outs—challenges like record-breaking housing costs or paying for childcare. When students’ basic needs aren’t met, remaining enrolled may not be an option.
That’s where cash assistance grants come in.
What Is a Cash Assistance Grant?
Unlike emergency tuition assistance grants, which many colleges and universities offer to students experiencing financial challenges, cash assistance grants are not applied directly to university costs. Instead, colleges give these grants to students, who can use them as they see fit to support basic needs ranging from housing and transportation to medical expenses.
Cash assistance funds can come from the university itself or by outside sources like the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) and are typically administered through financial aid or student affairs offices.
Why Should Colleges Create Cash Assistance Programs?
For many of today’s college students, tuition payments are just the tip of the iceberg. Existing financial aid programs are poorly matched to the needs of non-traditional students since many funding sources are only available for full-time study or to recent high school graduates. Students with dependents or other significant responsibilities outside of class are especially likely to struggle within a system designed for single 18-year-olds. Direct cash payments to college students offer several benefits:
The Impact of Cash Assistance Programs
Cash assistance programs provide a short-term stopgap to help students prevent homelessness or hunger, yet their impacts go far beyond a month’s rent or a trip to the grocery store. In 2020, Edquity offered cash assistance grants to 90 students out of 289 applicants at Compton College, a California community college where 85% of students are Black or Latinx and 90% receive financial aid. Each student awarded a grant received $250.
The outcome? Twice as many grant recipients as non-recipients graduated that year.
The research is clear. Even small amounts of monetary help can make or break a student’s academic career and help to address systemic barriers to education. For colleges, cash grants for students serve as a powerful—and cost-effective—lever to increase graduation rates and equitable access.