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More than 18 million college students received federal COVID-19 emergency funds in the last two years—money that helped them stay in college and cover the cost of basic needs, the Education Department found in a new report on the federal aid.

Nearly 13 million college students divvied up $19.5 billion in federal COVID-19 emergency aid in 2021, and the Education Department estimated that 18 million total—80 percent of whom were Pell Grant recipients—received aid during the first two years of the Biden administration.

Ninety-four percent of community colleges and 90 percent of institutions over all credited the emergency funds with helping to keep students at risk of dropping out enrolled. The money also helped institutions absorb the shock of enrollment declines, lost revenue and other financial stressors during the pandemic.

“The story of the pandemic, [which] would have been even grimmer for our colleges, has not been for these funds,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Lindsey Tepe, assistant vice president for governmental affairs for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said the report’s data are a “powerful reminder” of how many students relied on the COVID-19 emergency aid. The department has not previously reported the estimate of students who received aid. APLU released its own analysis last year of how its members used the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund money to support students.

American colleges and universities received nearly $40 billion in 2021 as part of the third—and final—round of federal COVID emergency relief funds, which totaled more than $76 billion. More than 90 percent of the money has been spent, according to the Education Department’s annual report on the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, though institutions have until June 30 to spend the remaining funds.

“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,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said at a media briefing. “It helps paint a picture of what was happening in our country and how students benefited.”

Students received $1,507, on average, in emergency aid. Pell Grant recipients received an average payment of $2,000.

Students at underresourced institutions were more likely to receive more aid. Nearly 80 percent of students at historically Black colleges and universities received HEERF aid; the average award was $2,400. At tribally controlled colleges and universities, the average award was $2,600.

Colleges and universities were required to submit annual reports about how the HEERF money was used. Reports for 2022 have not been filed yet, so this year’s annual report is based on 2021 data. The department used the 2021 reports and 2022 spending to estimate the overall impact of HEERF funds during the Biden administration and the estimate of how many students have received direct financial aid, according to a news release.

Tepe at APLU said the level of aid provided directly to colleges and universities during the pandemic was unprecedented. Although the amount of money and the scale of the pandemic might be unprecedented, she said emergencies will continue, and this report shows the ability of the department and institutions to manage emergency spending.

“The more evidence of impact we see, the better we’ll be able to respond to emergencies in the future,” Tepe said.

Institutions reported to the department that they used the money to keep net prices similar to pre-pandemic levels, forgive institutional debts, retain staff and fund COVID-mitigation measures such as testing. Community colleges were also more likely than other institutions to say the funds helped continue programs at risk of discontinuation and to provide students with technology and internet access.

First Lady Jill Biden joined Cardona at a virtual media event Wednesday about the annual report, along with two community college students who shared how the emergency aid helped them.

“Whenever I was able to receive the HEERF funds during the pandemic, that such a great blessing for me,” said Mayra Barba, a nursing student at Amarillo Community College. “I used that for my son’s childcare, for the mortgage and for past-due bills. Without that assistance, I wouldn’t have been able to stay in college.”

Delaware State University president Tony Allen said at the event that his institution provided $20 million to students in the form of emergency grants. That money helped students cover the costs of books, pay bills or support their families—hurdles that could prevent someone from graduating.

“The results are clear in the last two graduating classes at Delaware State—they have been the largest graduating classes we have ever seen,” Allen said.

Allen added that HEERF and additional federal money allocated during the Biden administration have propelled historically Black colleges and universities forward.

“With respect to the American Rescue Plan, and what that has meant writ large for HBCUs, I cannot be more unequivocal: without it, many of our institutions would not have survived, and our students would have been hurt materially,” Allen said.

Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the report shows the powerful impact that need-based grant aid can have for students on the brink of a financial emergency.

“What’s more, the aid was largely directed to the students who needed it most: those from low-income families and those attending underresourced institutions,” Draeger said. “The results of today’s report are a testament to the hard work of financial aid offices across the country, who spent countless hours navigating complex regulations and guidance—at a time when many are facing severe staffing shortages—to ensure money got into the hands of students.”

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