New higher ed HEERF funding aims to support student basic needs

When it comes to the use of federal funds to address basic needs, here are some best practices institutions should consider as they apply for funding and implement programs.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education announced $198 million in American Rescue Plan funding to help institutions of higher education assist students who are struggling to meet basic needs. This investment, which will primarily be used to support community colleges and rural institutions, comes as a supplement to nearly $40 billion provided to colleges and universities through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) since the start of the pandemic. In addition to the new funding, the Department has also issued new guidance to schools on how funding can be used and what existing federal benefits are available to support students in need.

Through our work with institutions across the country, we’ve seen the ways in which helping students access emergency aid funds and pay for essentials like food, housing, and transportation can increase their likelihood of staying enrolled in their academic programs and graduating. In collaboration with Edquity partners across the United States, we’ve distributed $80 million to students in 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic has remained a focal point in our shared experience. However, research from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice has shown that this valuable source of support has often gone underutilized. Prior to the pandemic, a study from the organization showed that 1 in 3 students was unaware that emergency aid funds even existed on their campus. 

Amongst our partners, we’ve seen the development of thoughtful plans to help access new sources of funding, both direct cash payments and existing benefits programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And while a set of recommended best practices is forthcoming from the Department of Education, the below suggestions can also provide a helpful jump-start to institutions planning to apply for the new grant. 

Across all of our partnerships, colleges have kept their eligibility broad. The new HEERF guidelines made this possible with the removal of Pell eligibility as a requirement. Student support staff have been able to use other indicators, and in some cases, reach students who were eligible for emergency funding for the first time.

Some example segments our partners have reached with the distribution of cash grants include:

At Edquity, we believe that emergency aid grants should have broad eligibility requirements so that institutions can truly identify student segments with the most need that they may not even be aware of. 

Our partners have also experimented with the timing of programs. Several partners have open programs with no time limit, allowing them to receive applications and distribute aid until funds are exhausted. These types of programs improved speed, getting cash into the hands of students within 25 hours of application. Still other programs have split up funding into several campaigns, ensuring a pool of funding available over time for students to apply for as their emergency needs fluctuate. 

Our partners are now using data and insights from applications as they begin thinking about a post-HEERF world. For example, trends on need categories are informing the types of wrap-around services our partners plan to implement including cash assistance, food pantry expansions, and transportation vouchers.

The new influx of funding is a clear signal that basic needs security and expansion of emergency aid needs to be a long-term consideration for institutions looking to support and retain students. As your college or university begins to think about your resources, Edquity can help inform program design and equitable distribution of aid.

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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