Higher Ed Leaders Reflect on CARES Act Emergency Funds and Lessons for Future Aid

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

In a webinar hosted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice on Tuesday, a group of higher education leaders provided insight into their institutions’ efforts to equitably allocate emergency funding for students throughout the ongoing pandemic.

The discussion featured leaders from Compton, California; Montgomery, Alabama; Dallas; and Amarillo, Texas offering perspectives on how the crisis has impacted the higher education sector across the country.

When it comes to allocating emergency aid to students, resources are always limited, but removing barriers and reducing the time it takes to allocate aid of any amount is equally important for students.

“While we all know that students probably do need a lot of money and at this time, even $2,000 might not be enough. The fact is that even $500 delivered well can communicate care and help retain students,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, president and founder of The Hope Center.

The Hope Center helped Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College, refine his institution's robust emergency aid system, which had developed a 24-hour turnaround period. 

However, this emergency system was based on pre-COVID needs.

At the outset of the pandemic the system worked well, but it was clear to Lowery-Hart that the crisis was going to overwhelm a system not built to respond to months of unemployment and unpaid rent.

“In the beginning, our emergency system worked incredibly well, and broadened the number of people that we served and changed our conception of who needed us,” Lowery-Hart said. “That shifted over the summer and in the fall in really profound ways. As the pandemic timeline expanded, what we saw is students moving from needing emergency aid to living in the middle of a financial crisis.”

The severity of the financial strain was exacerbated by the fact that students previously living paycheck-to-paycheck had lost their jobs. WIthout this income, 71 students at Amarillo College found themselves facing homelessness, in desperate need of aid.

With enactment of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, schools were able to process initial financial strains that students had undergone.

According to Lowery-Hart at Amarillo College, nearly all 98% of the students that needed emergency aid from the CARES Act (98%) were on financial aid, 80% were Pell Grant-eligible, 77% were first-generation students, 77% were female, and 63% were Latino or Black.

“Of the students that got CARES Act in the fall, 86% of those students, we were able to retain to the beginning of this spring semester,,” Lowery-Hart said. “They will stay on the path to finishing their certificate or degree and transferring to university, [and]  into the workplace.”

The implementation of mass emergency aid also has leaders thinking about how higher education will need to respond to student needs in a post-pandemic landscape. 

Keith Curry, president of Compton College, used emergency aid to provide laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to students, as well as food delivery — three resources that he said need to be provided so students can continue learning in a variety of settings.

While institutions were able to use emergency funds to provide these resources and consider future use for available aid, they also had to work around CARES Act restrictions.

DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College, said she was profoundly concerned about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program participants being made ineligible for emergency funds by the CARES Act, due to Department of Education (ED) guidance.

“Our foundation immediately said, these are the students that we will target our resources on,” Pollard said. “That was very important because they have the ability to also go out and do significant fundraising to businesses in our community who benefit from this type of diversity in the workforce and see the value of that. That has been very important to us.”

With President-elect Joe Biden pledging to keep DACA in place, Pollard is hopeful that future federal aid will be made available for this cohort.

Outside of bureaucratic challenges in getting aid out to students, another obstacle has been  communicating the availability of that aid to the students themselves. 

“Students don't think that this is for them, there's somebody else that's needier,” said Pyeper Wilkins, vice chancellor of workforce & advancement at Dallas College. “Convincing students that this money is for them, that what they're going through is an emergency, that they should apply — that really has been our biggest challenge.” 

In administering aid, schools have tinkered with how they alert students about services by timing emails and using cell phone notifications — all things to consider in reallocating aid from future states and federal resources. 

“I just challenge you that as you refine your response to CARES not to refine it with bureaucratic responses that require paperwork and levels of approval,” Lowery-Hart said. “Get the money out as equitably and as quickly as you can.”

 

Publication Date: 1/20/2021


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