In Wake of Pandemic, Student Groups Raise Aid for Peers in Need

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

With the onset of the fall semester and the prevalence of the coronavirus continuing to take a toll on students’ fiscal well-being, a number of peer-led groups are aiming to fill those gaps through fundraising efforts to support those struggling through this new economic reality.

Throughout the pandemic, many students and their families have faced gaps in incomes and struggled to meet basic needs that the pandemic has made especially challenging for first generation and economically disadvantaged groups, further entrenching them with barriers to pursuing higher education.

While a number of higher education institutions and Congress have aimed to provide relief and aid for students with scholarship funds, emergency grants, and aid that was a part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, students are still struggling to make ends meet, so they are instead trying to crowdsource on their own in order to fill in the gaps.

At Georgetown University, students launched the Georgetown Mutual Aid Network in mid-August with the goal of reducing the burdens of financial stress, food insecurity, and housing instability, which have been some of the most pressing challenges for college students.

Just a few miles away, students at The George Washington University (GWU) have launched a GW Mutual Aid Network for students to share resources and connect students with the means they need to stay afloat during the pandemic.

The GW Mutual Aid Network was founded at the onset of the pandemic in early March and served as a resource to help students transition home for online coursework and has continued to provide aid to students.

“Our main requests are for food and rent. We see requests spike near the end of each month,” said Yannik Omictin, an undergraduate and Student Association vice president for government relations at GWU. “We receive some requests from students who seek to leave dangerous situations at home, and others who need to purchase textbooks and equipment for courses.”

Additionally, a Basic Needs Coalition was launched by Stanford University students for their peers to access essential needs that have been made out of reach by COVID-19, including food, housing, and health care.

“The actual initial spark that began to pull this organization together was a single spreadsheet that I made that allowed for people to offer resources,” said Will Shan, an undergraduate at Stanford University and member of the Basic Needs Coalition, citing transportation needs and financial assistance for the sudden need to relocate mid-semester. “That spreadsheet got so much momentum that it kind of pulled this group of students together who are really interested in how to continue making sure that people have the resources they need, even in this time.”

While these student groups face their own restraints and try to stay agile in responding to emergency requests, they’ve all sought to remain transparent in how they dole out the funds they’ve raised. While still maintaining student privacy, the groups have utilized an assortment of online spreadsheets and in some instances publicly track funds being raised and redistributed.

Peer groups all reiterated the challenges their fellow students face and have expressed a need for additional aid but that it needs to be targeted to students especially impacted by the pandemic.

“A lot of the students who are first-generation and are low-income can’t afford to delay graduating another year, can't afford to put off their entry into the world of the workforce to start their careers, and it's a sign of how inequitable the situation is right now,” Shan said. “There are certainly students that are quite simply vacationing right now.”

The peer-led efforts come as Congress remains stalled in its ongoing coronavirus aid negotiations that have threatened to continue for the coming weeks — and possibly months — ahead should a deal not be reached before the legislature breaks for the 2020 campaign. Without broad federal aid, these student-led groups could be pushed to grapple on their own and try to fill the broadening financial gaps.

Without institutional or federal intervention Omictin said access to a college education will become less attainable for millions of low-income students. As the current academic calendar comes into shape, GWU has adjusted aid packages to reflect changes in cost of attendance due to coronavirus. However things could still be subject to change should the spring semester pursue in-person learning, officials said.

“We are most concerned, however, about the recalculation of financial aid packages such that students received significantly less in aid this year. Hundreds of students have spoken up about how their aid packages were decimated,” Omictin said. “We are not experts on the maelstrom of policies and programs that make up the American student financial assistance apparatus, but we know that our institution and the federal government must step up to make sure students can finish their education.”

Shan cautioned that his group’s work is not a long-term fix that institutions should start relying on as a means to fill these equity gaps that have become more prominent and pronounced in the wake of the coronavirus. Instead of offering praise, Shan said he wants schools to adjust their own aid efforts in a manner that makes them more equitable.

“We don't want to be doing this work two years from now, three years from now. We want to be able to move the institution to step in and fill the gaps that are not being met right now,” Shan said. “I think there needs to be some soul searching, or some deep reflection and research done on institutional levels at universities all across the nation about how do you truly and equitably meet students' needs — during this time and beyond.”


Publication Date: 9/17/2020

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