Cash Assistance Grants vs. Tuition Assistance: What Colleges and Universities Need to Know

Tuition assistance is a powerful tool—but it’s not much help when the fridge is empty and rent is due. 

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:

  1. Recognize the complexity of student needs: Students who apply for aid via Edquity have, on average, three major need categories to address, such as food, housing, and childcare. Cash assistance allows students to address those needs without jumping through the hoops and dealing with the delays associated with more specific assistance programs.
  2. Empower students to make the decisions that are right for them: Direct cash assistance demonstrates trust in students’ ability to prioritize their needs appropriately. For example, a student parent may have access to affordable food but struggle to pay for childcare. Another student may need help paying for heating or obtaining safe transportation. Cash grants, unlike food assistance or tuition assistance programs, recognize that financial emergencies have myriad causes.
  3. Address urgent needs quickly: Financial crises often arise without warning, and the most vulnerable college students rarely have the cash reserves to deal with them. In these situations, tuition assistance programs or even traditional grants are unlikely to offer a solution. Cash assistance delivered through platforms like Edquity, though, can get students the money they need within 48 hours.

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. 

Is your college working to help students stay in school through financial crises? Edquity can help facilitate the rapid, compliant distribution of cash assistance. Request a demo today. 

Are you an administrator? Get in touch with us at to learn more about how you can bring equitable emergency aid to your institution today.

Are you a student? Contact or click the blue bubble in the bottom-right corner of for assistance.

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