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One-third of students surveyed for a new report about COVID-19 emergency aid said they put the funds toward tuition, technology, internet service or utilities.

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Federal emergency aid disbursed during the COVID-19 pandemic helped college students stay enrolled in classes, provided stress relief and improved academic outcomes, a new report out today says.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators partnered with NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and the consulting firm HCM Strategists to survey students and institutions about the higher education COVID-19 emergency stimulus funds and hear about lessons learned to inform future emergency aid programs at the institutional, state and federal levels. Results of the surveys were released in a new report, “Evaluating Student and Institutional Experiences With HEERF.”

“These funds had a positive impact on students,” said Jill Desjean, a senior policy analyst for NASFAA. “We found that they found the grant amounts to be meaningful enough to make a difference. They found the funds got to them in a timely fashion, and we even saw students reporting that they enjoy improved outcomes as a result of having received the HEERF friends.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the federal government has sent more than $76 billion to colleges and universities through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. About half of that was required to go to students in the form of emergency aid grants, though half of the institutions surveyed went beyond that requirement.

NASFAA and its partners surveyed 18,000 students about the emergency aid as well as 321 institutions. More than half of the students said they received emergency financial assistance, ranging from $1,000 to $2,000. The majority used the money to pay for food, books and housing, while a third put the funds toward tuition, technology, internet service or utilities.

Forty-one percent of the students said they borrowed less money in student loans because of the aid and that the money allowed them to cut back on the number of hours they worked.

Those who didn’t receive any assistance said they were unaware that the aid was available and didn’t know the process for applying for assistance. Those who did apply and were denied said in the survey that they didn’t know why their request was rejected.

The responses among different demographic groups were not significantly different, according to the report.

Congress initially stipulated that money for students could only be used for COVID-19-related expenses, which Desjean said was “unnecessarily limiting.” In subsequent relief bills, lawmakers gave more flexibility to colleges and universities in disbursing the aid.

Those changes helped, Desjean said.

Ninety-three percent of institutions surveyed said the increased flexibility was broad enough to accommodate students’ needs most or all of the time. That’s an improvement from NASFAA’s 2020 survey, when 73 percent of institutions said the aid was able to meet students’ needs most or all of the time.

The U.S. Department of Education’s management of the stimulus funds improved with each round of funding, institutions said in the survey.

Ninety percent of the institutions surveyed said the department’s guidance in the second and third rounds was somewhat or very organized, while only 11 percent found the guidance in the first round organized.

Desjean said NASFAA wanted to compare the three rounds of funding after releasing a report in 2020 on implementation issues with the first round.

“What we’ve learned more than anything is that you need to be really careful about how you design a program like this to ensure that it works well,” Desjean said.

The report includes considerations for institutional decision makers as well as state and federal lawmakers to weigh when setting up emergency aid programs. Those include prioritizing awareness of student needs and improving communication to students about the availability of funds.

NASFAA suggested that a federal emergency aid program should have broad allowable uses of aid and ensure that institutions serving students with the greatest needs have adequate resources to meet those needs.

“HEERF definitely just threw open the door to institutions to realize how many emergencies come up for students and how important it is for them to be able to have access to quick funds to stay enrolled in school,” Desjean said. “I think some of the positive outcomes that they saw from students who received HEERF grants versus those who didn’t will show them that emergency funding promotes positive student outcomes and helps students complete college.”

Many colleges and universities have some form of emergency funding programs, but those funds tend to “serve a fraction of the student body with one-time, small award amounts,” according to the report.

Some institutions said they improved existing aid programs using lessons learned from disbursing the HEERF emergency grants.

“This included streamlining application processes, expediting approval timelines, strengthening communications to students, and developing resources to address basic needs,” the report says.

A federal emergency aid program could fill financial gaps at colleges and universities with fewer resources and improve outcomes for students, the report suggests.

“The HEERF student emergency grant program served effectively as a large-scale experiment for a federal emergency aid program,” the report says. “Lessons learned from administering all three rounds of funding—what worked, what didn’t work, and what improvements were made along the way—provide valuable insight into how a federal emergency aid program should be designed.”

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