How delays disbursing emergency aid to students are resulting in mental anguish

The Hope Center’s founding director says colleges and universities must improve the scale and delivery of funds.
By: | November 17, 2021
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Earlier this year, the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University conducted a study on how well colleges and universities responded to the pandemic in getting emergency aid to students.

That report of nearly 200,000 students and more than 200 institutions exposed huge gaps in the time it takes for institutions to meet their financial needs. The costs of those delays are high, with some students stopping out of college and many more struggling to offset financial strains on housing, food and childcare expenses. The mental anguish they are coping with has been unprecedented.

“They’re not OK,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, Founding Director of the Hope Center and Professor of Higher Education Policy & Sociology at Temple University. “I have never seen the level of stress that these students are facing. Students are still very clear: they’re not getting the help they need.”

Caught up in their own red tape and a lack of support services, colleges are pushing the average time from application to delivery of those funds to nearly 13 business days. Worse, two-thirds of students who need help haven’t even applied.

How significant are these gaps and what can institutions do to help students thrive and ensure they remain at their institutions? University Business sat down with Goldrick-Rab, who also serves as the Chief Strategy Officer for Emergency Aid at student financial success and emergency aid firm Edquity, to learn more.

How significant is the crisis students are experiencing?

One is an economic crisis. The pandemic has disrupted students’ economics—increased expenses, technology, housing and jobs. Many did not get stimulus checks. One in four has a child, and school disruptions have had major impacts. Second is their mental health, from the isolation of the pandemic to disruptions in their regular routines. The way that many thought they would be experiencing learning has radically shifted. Third is the need to process difficult health information all the time, some of which is quite scary. We’re talking about anxiety, depression and the effects of having had the virus.

Do institutions have proper supports in place to handle the distribution of emergency aid?

Colleges and universities are being told it’s their job to help students and being given a lot of federal money. But what they don’t have are the systems to deliver that money well. The Department of Ed gave the money with very little instruction on what good distribution looks like. We spent $32 billion on emergency aid and said to colleges, ‘Go and do it.’ Schools should have to track the time that it takes to get money out the door and report it, but they didn’t set any expectations. If you want a college to send out $1,000 to students, it’s not like you just drop a helicopter full of money right over people. Somebody has to administer it. Congress didn’t give any more money to financial aid offices. Of the administrative cost allowance for the Pell Grant—about $6,000—colleges get about $5. No company would do this.

You conducted this massive survey of 195,000 students and 200 institutions. What were some of the biggest takeaways?

The amount of need was substantial, and the number of people not getting help was huge. We surveyed their institutions to learn about their practices. The staff is absolutely trying, but they’re basically doing triage. They’re struggling in three big areas:

  • Helping students to know that support is available. You can’t just send them one email or put the information online. You have to do everything over and over. Marketing and communications offices often put money on external PR, not on internal communications.
  • They do not have systems in place to quickly process lots of applications and make hundreds of decisions a day. No company would do it the way higher ed is, which is to have committees examine each application one at a time.
  • Higher ed is miserable at delivering money to students. They put the money in an account, then you have to get the money out and move it to your bank account. What’s worse is, they often don’t put it in an account. They cut a check, and they cut them once a week. The average amount of time it takes for students to get help is 12.8 business days. We would never ask anyone we care about to wait three weeks for help.

A few institutions were highlighted for positive work in the study. What are they doing differently from the others?

What they’re doing is not great, it’s just better than others. They’re Bs, not As. They’re cutting red tape and not doing long applications anymore. They are getting checks cut more often and using mobile banking to get money to students. The Bs understand the need to move fast, and the need to move fast for a lot of people. The name of the game is scale.

How does Edquity’s process differ in getting money to students?

Edquity is using something that I developed, an app to get money out the door to students within 48 hours and make equitable and evidence-based decisions quickly. There are a growing number of schools using it—Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Compton College in Los Angeles and Dallas College. Some colleges don’t know it exists. Some colleges don’t think it’s safe. I’m not sure what we’re waiting for. They’re thinking that the financial aid system as it currently is will save them.

What are the benefits of getting those funds in the hands of students for higher ed?

We released a report that shows if we send them one email once a month, they are much more likely to apply [for aid]. If you give students emergency aid, there’s emerging evidence that suggests it can increase graduation rates. These are low-dollar programs—$250-$1,000. We’re not talking about $15,000 scholarships. Right now it’s seen as nice to have, not essential. It’s very hard to take seriously presidents who say ‘My enrollment is down’ or ‘We’re doing DEI work’ but are not invested in emergency aid or doing it well.