Emergency aid funds play a vital role in helping college students persist and complete their education, particularly amidst the turmoil and uncertainty of the past eighteen months. In the months following the initial outbreak of COVID-19, Congress authorized $6.3 billion in emergency aid as part of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), with the intention of providing financial support to students who suffered financial burden as a result of disruptions to campus operations.
Now, more than a year and half into the pandemic, we’re beginning to gain perspective on the way that HEERF funds have – and have not – helped institutions better support their students through this tumultuous time. Though emergency aid funds had been available in the past, the influx of funds and sheer scope of student need presented both new opportunities and new challenges for colleges and universities, particularly those that did not have the capacity and infrastructure in place for such a significant undertaking.
To examine the impact of HEERF funds, The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice recently published a groundbreaking report taking a close look at how more than 154 institutions across the US dealt with the unique challenges of the pandemic and managed emergency aid distributions. Titled “When Care Isn’t Enough: Scaling Emergency Aid During the Pandemic,” the report outlines the various approaches taken by institutions, including a few specific case studies and offers key insights for higher ed institutions, Congress and The US Department of Education to carry forward.
The report included surveys of staff and administrators, as well as focus groups, representing more than 165,000 students in 42 states.
Challenges and Opportunities
The report found that emergency aid was a critical lifeline for many students throughout the pandemic. A fall 2020 survey found that 69% of respondents said emergency aid increased their chances of graduating; 82% said it increased their personal well-being; and 76% said emergency aid made them feel that their college cared about them. Case studies of institutions including the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and Grambling State University demonstrated that reducing the burden of verification for students (e.g., through simple Google Forms) helped more students receive funds quickly.
However, The Hope Center found troubling gaps in the distribution of emergency aid: as many as two-thirds of students experiencing basic needs insecurity did not apply at all. In many cases, these challenges stemmed from structural issues: students often lacked basic information about the availability of aid programs, were unsure whether or not they could apply, or didn’t know the programs existed at all. For those who did navigate the application process, it often took as long as two weeks to receive funds.
What’s Next: Recommendations
As the report makes clear, much more needs to be done in order to fulfill the promise of emergency aid as a lever for persistence, completion, and equity. With that in mind, the report includes a number of recommendations for policymakers and institutions, including the following: