New Data Shows Emergency Pandemic Aid Helped Keep 18 Million Students Enrolled
The Department of Education (ED) has released new data showing that 18 million students were helped by emergency aid for colleges and universities throughout the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of which was used to provide emergency grants to students. These funds were provided through three rounds of Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) In total, $76.2 billion was provided, with half of those funds going to support students directly. Unusually for funding in higher education, the money was not heavily means-tested, and was distributed very quickly.
The report indicates that the funds were used for several essential purposes, including student basic needs, keeping staff employed, and helping keep students enrolled. For example, students used funds to cover things like food and housing at a time when employment was drying up for many students, ensuring that the Pandemic did not plunge students who already had limited funds deeper into basic needs insecurity.
Colleges used the emergency funds to help mitigate students’ costs, including reducing balances owed by students to their colleges. Over two-thirds of colleges reported that the support enabled them to keep staff and faculty on the payroll who might otherwise have been laid off. In addition, many colleges used funds to help re-engage and re-enroll students who were forced to drop out of college because of the pandemic. As enrollment in higher education has declined significantly over the past three years, these efforts are seen as vital to the long-term health of higher education and an economy in need of skilled workers.
“Today’s report makes clear that, for millions of college students, the financial lifelines delivered by President Biden through the American Rescue Plan’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund are what made it possible to stay enrolled and on track during the pandemic,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a press release.
Institutions were required to spend at least half of their HEERF funds on direct aid to students, but many schools chose to use dollars that they could have spent elsewhere to provide additional assistance to students. Around 2,000 colleges and universities spent $1.7 billion on other emergency grants for students, amounting to eight percent of institutional HEERF funds spent in 2021.
HEERF funds were vital for under-resourced schools, especially Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Tribal colleges. Both types of institutions have been historically underfunded, so the influx of support helped them keep support flowing to students that would likely not have been possible otherwise.
“The positive impact of the Biden-Harris Administration’s investments cannot be overstated, especially for students from the communities hit hardest by the pandemic, including our communities of color and low-income urban and rural communities. As I travel the country, I’ve been heartened to hear from students on how the American Rescue Plan helped them stay enrolled and from colleges and universities who said American Rescue Plan funds have helped raise the bar in how they support students, from forgiving debts to addressing food and housing insecurity, to expanding mental health supports, and so much more,” said Cardona
Pell Grant recipients and students attending under-resourced institutions were more likely to receive emergency grants. Pell Grants are federal financial aid primarily awarded to students from low-income backgrounds and used as a proxy for high financial need. Eighty percent of Pell Grant recipients received support and larger awards than other students, an average of $2,000, compared to $1,200.
The support from these emergency funding rounds, particularly for students, was unprecedented, especially given the relatively low administrative burden placed on students. Anti-poverty experts have long argued that the best way to support people in need is to provide cash and trust people to use it appropriately. However, that approach is rare, particularly in college financial aid, which tends to have a lot of red tape surrounding it. The direct support for students was also unusual because it did not change their eligibility for other financial aid—due to federal regulations, most emergency aid reduces students’ eligibility for additional funds, sometimes leaving them no better off.
By providing flexibility to colleges for how they distributed aid and limited eligibility criteria, HEERF funds were quickly distributed to students. Helping students access emergency support rapidly was key to the effectiveness of the support.
The pandemic turned a lot of thinking on its head, and hopefully, the idea that emergency aid has to be doled out with lots of conditions, and heavily means-tested are two of those things.