With $35B from Congress, college emergency aid programs multiply, evolve

U.S. colleges and universities collectively have received billions in federal funds for emergency student aid this past year, prompting campuses to create—and refine—programs that connect students with timely support.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has allocated more than $35 billion for grants to help college students who are facing unexpected expenses and basic needs insecurity. While “rife with bureaucratic hurdles,” the recent infusion of emergency aid “is one of the few trends to emerge from the pandemic that higher education experts hope will remain after the health crisis,” The Washington Post writes.

Next-level emergency aid

Hundreds of colleges and universities (including Georgetown) had already established emergency aid or microgrant programs prior to the pandemic. The initiatives, which typically rely on philanthropy or institutional funding, have shown that relatively small grants can play an important role in reducing low-income students’ risk of dropping out.

Related: Microgrants: How ‘affordable philanthropy’ can support college completion »

The Post notes that even campuses accustomed to distributing emergency grants have faced uncharted territory this past year, given the scope of students’ “unrelenting and evolving” needs during COVID-19 and the unprecedented federal investment in emergency student aid.

Increasing awareness and efficiency

Some colleges say the intensity of the past year revealed improvement opportunities. Leaders at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), for instance, noticed a need to make the institution’s aid application less burdensome and time-consuming for students seeking support—and for staff reviewing requests. VCU pared the form down to a five-minute online submission, enabling the university to distribute 99 percent of its second-round funding within 45 days.

California-based Compton College, meanwhile, turned to an outside education technology company, Edquity, to ensure it could distribute aid equitably and efficiently. Using the Edquity app, Compton approves grant requests within 24 hours and distributes funds shortly thereafter.

Edquity’s Chief Strategy Officer Sara Goldrick-Rab—who also founded the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice—says it is crucial to remove administrative hurdles that hamper students in crisis. Some emergency aid programs limit their impact by requiring applicants to meet certain academic criteria or submit lengthy essays about their needs. “We’ve got to get money in students’ hands in a way that doesn’t dehumanize them,” Goldrick-Rab told the Post.

Increasing students’ awareness of emergency aid is another priority. After participating in a Hope Center survey about basic needs insecurity, Morgan State University in Baltimore learned that only half of surveyed students knew about federal emergency grants. And while 60 percent of survey respondents reported food or housing insecurity, just 20 percent of respondents had applied for emergency aid.

Calling the results “sobering,” Kara Turner, Morgan State’s vice president of enrollment and student success, says the institution has “sent numerous emails” about emergency grants and is considering “partnering with student groups” to increase utilization.

Future federal support for emergency needs?

Given the pandemic’s ongoing fallout and still-evolving federal guidance, some college and university leaders say they have reserved some relief funds for future student needs and will continue refining their aid programs. Some institutions, for instance, remain hesitant to award grants to students who don’t qualify for federal financial aid, following inconsistent guidance and limited eligibility during the Trump administration.

“The initial challenges of last year—unclear and often changing guidance— created fear,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Education Department. The department has taken steps to clarify certain elements, recently announcing, for example, that colleges and students can use the grants to pay off balances accumulated since March 13, 2020, potentially helping students fend off transcript holds.

Other advocates are urging expanded federal investment. “We knew before the pandemic that an emergency fund for students who were just a flat tire or medical bill away from dropping out would keep many on a course to graduate,” Kyle Southern, higher education policy and advocacy director for Young Invincibles, told the Post. “Now, the administration should pursue this needed investment … for all students regardless of immigration status or institution.”

Emergency aid for first-generation and low-income Georgetown students
As part of the university’s commitment to removing financial barriers for students with the greatest need, Georgetown in 2010 began providing grants to students encountering unexpected out-of-pocket expenses such as medical co-pays and emergency travel.

Funded by our generous donor community and administered by the university’s Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP)—a nationally recognized model for supporting first-generation and low-income students—the GSP Necessity Fund now distributes several thousand grants annually. Interested in supporting the fund? Learn more or give today.

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