Did the $77 billion given by Congress to institutions of higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a large portion earmarked for students, really make a difference?
Emergency funds funneled by colleges and universities indeed were consequential as nearly 90% of recipients said they experienced less stress and were able to concentrate more clearly on their studies, according to a new report released by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), NASPA and HCM Strategists.
Beyond that, a remarkable 58% of students said it helped them remain in college, while more than half said it limited the number of hours they had to work. It also prevented them from piling $1,000 and $2,000 on top of their student loan debts. Many used the funds to both pay for items related to college and on essentials.
“The results show how even small amounts of emergency aid had a meaningful and positive impact to students, and that clearly, basic needs are still a significant concern, as a majority of student respondents indicated they used their grants on food and housing needs,” said Karen McCarthy, NASFAA vice president of public policy and federal relations.
The survey was conducted in the spring of 2022 by three organizations through 11 member institutions. They received responses from more than 18,000 students who either had received Pell grants, were borrowers, were first-generation or got financial support from family. Some of them had not been enrolled at their colleges before the pandemic. The resulting 75-page report provides a thorough, data-driven look at how Higher Education Emergency Relief funds were spent, as well as recommendations for leaders to peruse.
One of those is ensuring that strong communication and messaging are being done to get the word out. Although students who did receive aid largely reported positive outcomes, the portion of non-recipients said, “they were unaware the emergency assistance was available, thought they wouldn’t qualify or didn’t know the process for receiving emergency assistance.” McCarthy noted that, “it shows how critical providing clear information about emergency aid resources is, particularly for students experiencing a financial crisis.”
How institutions have responded
When the pandemic hit, students were under duress. From the survey, almost all of them were living off campus and more than 40% lost their employment or had to incur additional medical expenses. For one-third, their financial lifelines of support tightened, too, as family members either lost jobs or saw wages reduced. So while the average amounts distributed were not massive, they were enough triage to keep many students on campus.
They spent those grants on food (61%), books (57%), and housing (50%), but they also invested in devices, paid for future tuition and everyday essentials such as transportation or utilities. The majority of those from the survey who did apply were from Minority-Serving Institutions.
In addition to the main survey, the three agencies conducted a separate questionnaire for financial aid teams who handed HEERF from 2020 through 2022, which elicited 321 responses. From the survey, there were several notable data points:
- More than half have used, or are planning to use, funds on emergency grants to students.
- In the final round, many colleges and universities saw a boost in professional judgment inquiries and requests, as well as emergency aid requests.
- Expected family contributions and Pell Grant status were among the two most frequently checked markers for distribution of funds to students. But teams also considered other potential impacts, such as housing, food and technology in their assessments.
The good news for institutions and policymakers, and perhaps something to refer back to, is that the vast majority of respondents noted that the application process was simple. Still, the organizations recommend that they communicate both the availability of programs and the eligibility requirements. They also should be “fostering communities of practice to share experiences, recommendations, and promising practices.” In addition, they must work harder to reach those who have stopped out, and potentially meet them financially without federal help. A portion of those polled said the grants did not impact their decisions to re-enroll.
“Moving forward, we hope policymakers will use the lessons learned from this work to develop permanent sources of emergency funding for students, and that those at the state and institutional levels will work to expand, improve, or develop their own emergency aid programs,” McCarthy said.