Administrators at postsecondary institutions experienced little trouble drawing down Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) during the past year but were entangled by reams of red tape and complex guidance, according to a new study released by three organizations.
The report from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), NASPA and MDRC highlights challenges faced by colleges in their quest to get quick relief to students in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. From burdensome reporting requirements to confusing legislative language to training offers that came too late, the majority of administrators polled said improvements to the process would be welcome.
“Creating and implementing the HEERF emergency grant programs was no small feat,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. “We commend lawmakers and the Department of Education for recognizing a dire need and taking quick action to provide some relief, as well as the financial aid offices that worked tirelessly to get vital aid dollars into the hands of struggling students. The need for emergency aid programs for college students persists, and we urge lawmakers to develop a more permanent federal emergency aid program.”
Administrators said they want more “flexibility in selecting recipients and want emergency aid to be exempt from estimated financial aid.” Nearly half desire to have emergency aid fall outside of Title IV programs.
NAFSAA, NASPA and MDRC, which received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for their research, agreed, saying policymakers should heed those wishes and boost aid to distance education students; provide clearer communication on the use of funds and reporting, and offer more timely training for those looking for assistance.
Five steps to boost emergency aid
While addressing what worked and what didn’t during a wild 2020-21, the group’s Evaluation of CARES Act Funding for Postsecondary Institutions also provided potential strategies for colleges looking to assist vulnerable students in the future:
- Provide clear direction to students: It’s on institutions to recast complex information in easy-to-digest language and provide the necessary support so students don’t struggle to understand eligibility requirements and fill out application forms. Student focus groups in the study said they often were beset by conflicting directions. In addition, colleges should regularly blitz social media, text students and provide easy-to-find links to financial aid information on websites and their learning management systems.
- Perfect the process. Just as colleges and universities expect legislators and the Department to streamline and improve processes, they should be doing the same. Find inefficiencies and rectify them. Break down silos and share information with stakeholders. Find opportunities and seize on them. Use data to target potential donors.
- What is help without equity? Because emergency funds are at a premium, institutions should have in place equitable ways of distributing them, ensuring that students in need are top priority. NASFAA and others suggest having applications be looked at by a committee, conducting surveys and offering bias training to staff. They also should continue to monitor and manage those programs once implemented.
- Don’t delay. Though committee assistance might work for some institutions, they may delay students from getting fast responses. Maintain reasonable timelines and, if necessary, identify a minimum number of committee members necessary to make decisions.
- Look at all options. Institutions can’t be too cautious when doling out emergency aid, so compliance is key. But there may be unique needs that fall under emergency aid guidelines, such as mental health resources, moving expenses or necessary technology devices and internet that could be considered.