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Emergency grant funding awarded to eligible students at Southern New Hampshire University boosted retention among recipients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Pandemic relief funds given to higher education from 2020 to 2022 helped keep institutions afloat and, subsequently, students enrolled and supported. New data from Southern New Hampshire University find a link between learners receiving emergency grant funding to pay for housing and food and their persistence through multiple academic terms.

The Center for Higher Education Policy and Practice published the first of a two-part report evaluating the impact of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grants at SNHU in October 2022. The second report, published this fall, evaluates learner persistence among 47,381 students who received $76.7 million in HEERF grants.

Researchers found HEERF II and III recipients were 15.5 percent and 8.6 percent more likely to stay enrolled compared to their peers, respectively. The impact of basic needs funding on retention pushed SNHU officials to create an emergency grant program to continue financial support for at-risk learners.

The background: HEERF funding came with the CARES Act, which Congress passed in March 2020, to assist students impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and was distributed nationwide over the next two years.

“While the federal government’s response to COVID-19 helped many learners stay enrolled at the time, the basic needs support gap long predated the pandemic,” the report says.

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics released its first data set on basic needs insecurity this summer, using data from the 2019–20 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

The study found that among undergraduate learners, 22.6 percent experienced food insecurity and 8 percent experienced homelessness during the time studied. Graduate learners nationally have lower levels of basic needs insecurity, with 12.2 percent experiencing food insecurity and 4.6 experiencing homelessness in 2019–20.

Undergraduates at private nonprofit four-year institutions, like Southern New Hampshire, reported basic needs insecurity on lower levels compared to their peers, with 18.8 percent experiencing food insecurity and 7.7 percent experiencing homelessness.

Students at private nonprofit institutions were also less likely to report receiving emergency aid (8.9 percent), compared to their peers at community colleges (11.1 percent) and public four-year institutions (18.2 percent).

“Today, the lack of basic needs funding and the imminent need for support continues. As of 2022, the U.S. is slowly emerging from the global pandemic,” the report says. “But the impacts of inflation and effects of the pandemic facing students as they try to complete their degrees makes basic need insecurities ever more pronounced and pressing.”

Distributing funding: SNHU distributed $107 million in HEERF money to more than 51,000 learners between April 2021 and June 2022, or around 7.6 percent of eligible students and 88 percent of applicants. SNHU conducted two student outreach campaigns, offering qualifying students $2,000 to apply to housing, food or transportation.

Around 48 percent of SNHU students receive Pell Grants, so university officials decided to send aid directly to students via gift cards or direct deposit into their bank accounts using Edquity, a provider of emergency cash transfers on behalf of institutions and government.

The greatest number of students (22.7 percent) applied funds toward housing, followed by food (17.7 percent) and transportation (17 percent).

Possible Solutions for Institutions

Researchers at the Center for Higher Education Policy and Practice identified three emergency approaches to provide basic needs support.

  • Emergency grants. A just-in-time grant, between $300 to $2,000, gives students funds for health care, mental health services, food or childcare.
  • Direct services. Institutional supports can include free or subsidized student housing, food pantry items, subsidized transportation, mental health services or childcare.
  • Basic needs coordinator. A staff member employed by the state or institution guides students through basic needs supports available and helps them apply.

Understanding impact: SNHU officials measured persistence among students who received funding in 2021 and 2022 from HEERF compared to their peers who did not receive funding.

The 2021 recipients were 15.5 percent more likely to be enrolled by the end of the observation period (four academic terms), and the 2022 recipients were 8.6 percent more likely to be enrolled at the end of the observation period (three terms). SNHU’s online undergraduate programs consist of six eight-week terms per year.

Anecdotally, students also shared in the first report that HEERF funds helped them stay in college through meeting their urgent needs.

What’s next: After seeing the jumps in persistence among grant recipients, SNHU officials ran a pilot program in the spring and summer 2023 terms, giving just-in-time emergency grants for basic needs support.

The effects of the pilot program are still under evaluation, but findings will inform future projects at SNHU related to financial aid for basic needs.

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