Report: Pandemic relief funds helped students stay enrolled and afford basic needs

In the 2021 calendar year, U.S. colleges and universities distributed $19.5 billion in emergency aid grants to 12.7 million students to help them stay in school and pay for food, housing, and other basic needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, says a new report released last week by U.S. Department of Education. Those grants came from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), pandemic aid meant to help institutions slow the spread of COVID-19 while keeping students enrolled and college costs down, especially for low-income students and students of color. Participating colleges and universities had to submit annual reports to the Department of Education detailing how they used HEERF, according to Inside Higher Ed.

HEERF was first established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to help higher education institutions respond to the pandemic and its effect on enrollment, lost revenue, and other financial stressors. The program received an additional $40 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act signed into law March 2021. Higher education institutions were required to use half of the federal relief money to provide financial aid to students, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. More than 90% of the money has been spent, and, according to Inside Higher Ed, institutions have until June 30, 2023, to spend the remaining funds. The White House estimates that by the end of 2022, 18 million students received direct financial aid from the program, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) reports.

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“The report released today offers the clearest picture yet of how colleges and universities use HEERF dollars to get help to the students most in need,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. “It helps paint a picture of what was happening in our country and how students benefited.”

Helping with basic needs and retention

“Today’s data shows the powerful impact that need-based grant aid—even a small amount—can have for students on the brink of a financial emergency,” said National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) President and CEO Justin Draeger, according to the association. “What’s more, the aid was largely directed to the students who needed it most: those from low-income families and those attending under-resourced institutions.” The key findings from the report also found that HEERF was used to:

  • Provide emergency aid to nearly half of all students enrolled in HEERF-eligible colleges, including low-income students. Eighty percent of Pell Grant recipients received emergency aid grants, compared to just under 40% of non-Pell Grant recipients. Pell Grant recipients received an average of $2,000, which could be used for cost of attendance, as well as food, housing, health care (including mental health care), and child-care. 
  • Ensure students stay enrolled by keeping costs down. Around 9 in 10 institutions said HEERF allowed them to keep students enrolled who were at risk of stopping out due to pandemic-related factors. HEERF also kept student net prices close to pre-pandemic levels, with over 1,400 institutions spending close to $1.5 billion in discharging unpaid student balances.  
  • Slow the spread of the pandemic. Almost 3 in 4 institutions reported that HEERF helped them purchase COVID tests and provide health screenings and health care for students, faculty, and staff. 
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