Today, institutions are flush with billions in funding from the federal government’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), creating unique opportunities and challenges when it comes to the distribution of emergency aid to students. But as the dust settles and institutions chart a path back to normalcy, we’ll also need to prepare for a future with scarcer resources—even though the role of emergency aid in boosting retention, completion, and student success will be no less crucial.
Can the lessons of HEERF distribution provide any insight for a changing future—and help institutions navigate the role of emergency aid moving forward?
The answer, it turns out, is that there’s a lot we can learn from what went right – and wrong – with HEERF distribution that will apply in an environment with scarcer resources. But it’s just as important to understand the similarities as the differences. Below, we’ve teased out what lessons from HEERF should remain consistent—and which ones will need to change to meet a new landscape of higher education funding.
The most salient takeaways from HEERF are well-summarized in a recent report from NASFAA (the national association of financial aid administrators), NASPA (the national association of student personnel administrators), and the research organization MDRC. Among the most important lessons highlighted from those organizations’ research include:
- Make communications universal: When funding is widely available, clear and broad communication to the entire student body can ensure that as many students as possible understand how to confirm eligibility and apply for aid.
- Increase award amounts: The researchers note that many students “felt the funds were helpful, but did not make a substantial difference.” At a time of so much upheaval and economic turmoil, any amount of money was important—but the report’s findings suggest that institutions can actually be more generous, and/or broaden the list of expenses that are eligible for emergency aid.
- Prioritize need, access, and speed of service: It may go without saying, but the report makes clear that time is of the essence. In short, the most effective response during a crisis is to ensure that as many students as possible can access funding quickly and efficiently.
These are useful learnings for times like these, when federal funding is plentiful and student need is extreme. But we’ve been calling the past year an “unprecedented time” for a reason. How should institutions think about emergency aid distribution when resources are more scarce?
A few lessons from our own experience may help colleges and universities navigate aid distribution in the coming months:
- Make communications targeted: With fewer financial resources, broad-based communications may create more noise than signal, and make it harder for the students who most need financial support to find the resources they need. Some good examples of places to focus include students with past due balances or large unmet need gaps, or those who have historically engaged with your institution for financial support.
- Ensure award amounts can move the needle on common basic needs issues: Increased award amounts and expanded eligibility make sense when institutions are flush with funding. When distributing a smaller pool of aid, start by determining the specific situation that your program is attempting to solve, and then benchmark award amounts to the specific actions or next steps that can help address that situation.
- Prioritize need and access – but ensure dollars are targeted appropriately: While it’s always helpful to provide funding for students as quickly as possible, speed is not always as important as accuracy with smaller funding amounts. Consider tools like Edquity’s that can help quantify students’ need in an unbiased way; distributing funds over the course of the semester (and assessing how need changes across the semester); and supporting students with other non-monetary support services (beyond HEERF) to help ensure that you are supporting students in ways that will best support persistence and completion efforts.
Perhaps most importantly of all, it’s important to remember that we’re likely at the beginning of a roller coaster. While federal funds are plentiful now and may not be so later, the possibility of more stimulus packages – whether for COVID variants, climate events, or other unexpected crises – may still be on the horizon. The institutions that understand how to navigate emergency aid distribution during times of both plenty and scarcity will be the best-prepared to provide students with the support they need to persist no matter the circumstances.
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