A new report out today from NASFAA documents the experiences students and institutions had with emergency COVID-19 funding, including how institutions doled out those funds to students, and what those students used the emergency funds for – like groceries, books, tuition, and more.
Done in partnership between NASFAA, NASPA - Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and HCM Strategists, the new report is titled “Evaluating Student and Institutional Experiences With the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.”
During March 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which introduced HEERF to provide grants to institutions with the requirement that they spend 50% of those funds on direct grants to students for expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress followed the CARES Act HEERF program with the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) in December 2020 and the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act in March 2021, which doled out $77 billion under HEERF.
NASFAA previously conducted a report with NASPA and MDRC in 2021 examining experiences with the CARES Act HEERF grants through surveys of administrators and student focus groups. This new report examines how students and institutions used federal emergency stimulus funding during the COVID-19 pandemic, how institutions determined eligibility for the student grants, how institutions perceived federal management of HEERF, and what lessons were learned.
“We hope Congress and the states will use lessons learned from this project to develop permanent sources of emergency aid funding or dedicated programs for postsecondary students experiencing financial crises,” the new report states. “We also hope institutions will expand, improve, or develop their own institutional emergency aid programs.”
Out of the over 18,000 students surveyed, 63% said they received HEERF emergency student grants from their institution during the pandemic, with a total average grant amount for each student between $1,000 to $2,000. Students most frequently used the HEERF funds to pay for food (61%), books (57%), housing (50%), and transportation (40%). Students also used the funds for tuition, technology, internet service, or utilities.
“Open-ended comments allowed students to share their stories describing circumstances as a result of COVID, including supporting extended family after job losses, covering medical expenses for family, paying funeral-related costs, and preventing eviction and related legal fees. Other often-cited expenses included car insurance, health insurance, and car payments,” the report states.
The report recommends that institutions leverage campus and community resources to increase support for basic needs, since many students used emergency aid to pay for things like food, housing, and utilities.
“A majority of student survey respondents indicated food and housing as priority needs for use of the funds they requested; clearly, basic needs are still a significant concern,” the report states. “Institutions maximizing campus and community resources to address basic needs can have a critical impact on students’ overall well-being and allow students to use emergency funding for other crucial needs.”
Out of the students who did receive emergency funding, 54% said they applied while 31% said they received the funds automatically. And for the students that did apply to receive emergency funding, 87% said the application process was “very easy” or “somewhat easy.”
A vast majority of students – 89% — said they “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that the emergency aid allowed them to experience less stress and better focus on their studies, that they received the aid quickly (81%), and that the amount of aid was adequate enough to meet their needs (61%). Fifty-eight percent of students said the emergency aid allowed them to stay enrolled in college and 53% said the aid allowed them to get better grades than they would have without the funding.
More than one-third of students (41%) said they also borrowed less in student loans than they would have if they had not received emergency aid, and the same percentage felt the emergency aid allowed them to reduce the number of hours they worked.
For the students who didn’t apply for emergency aid, 51% said they were unaware the aid was available, 47% said they thought they wouldn’t qualify, and 34% said they did not know the process to receive the aid.
The report also recommends institutions improve communication to students about the availability of emergency funds, how to request them, eligibility criteria, and reasons for full or partial denial when applicable.
“Students may not need to be 100% aware of the sources of the funding they receive, but they do need to know funds or resources are available, how to request aid, the eligibility criteria for assistance, and the outcome rationale for decisions about their request,” the report states. “Providing clear information about emergency aid resources and processes is imperative, especially for students experiencing a financial crisis.”
NASFAA surveyed 321 financial aid administrators across the country to learn more about their experiences with the three rounds of HEERF funding.
Since the third round of HEERF funding required institutions to spend a portion of their institutional share grant dollars on outreach related to financial aid appeals — known as professional judgment (PJ) requests — institutions saw a 41% increase in PJ inquiries. Institutions also saw a 37% increase in PJ requests and a 34% increase in emergency aid requests. Minority-serving institutions (MSIs) reported larger increases, with a 51% increase in PJ inquiries, a 53% increase in PJ requests, and a 45% increase in emergency aid requests.
The report also found institutions used a wide range of criteria to determine eligibility for HEERF student emergency grants, with the top two student emergency grant awarding criteria being expected family contribution (EFC) at 69% and federal Pell Grant recipient status at 66%. At least 40% of institutions said they used criteria based on food, housing, and other basic needs.
About half of institutions – 51% – said they used a portion of their HEERF institutional share dollars to award student emergency grants, with another 7% indicating they had plans to use institutional funds to award emergency grants or were not yet decided.
Twenty-nine percent of institutions set goals for HEERF student emergency grant recipient outcomes. The most common reported goals were relieving student stress at 86%, preventing students from dropping courses at 60%, and allowing students to enroll in the term subsequent to receiving the HEERF emergency grant 46%. Out of institutions that chose not to conduct an evaluation of HEERF student emergency grant outcomes, 40% said they did not want to burden students and 39% said they had a lack of resources as their primary reasons.
Ninety-three percent of institutions said the expanded allowable uses of student share HEERF dollars in the HEERF II and HEERF III funding rounds were broad enough to accommodate their students’ needs most or all of the time. That number is up compared to the 73% who reported on a 2020 institutional survey that they felt the HEERF I allowable use of student emergency grant funds was broad enough to accommodate students’ needs all or most of the time.
The report makes several considerations for federal emergency aid programs, including how the decision of where a federal emergency aid program is authorized — within or outside of the confines of the HEA Title IV programs — has significant implications for both institutions and students. For example, creating the HEERF emergency student grant program outside of the Title IV programs permitted institutions to award these emergency funds without an application and allowed non-Title IV eligible students to receive aid.
“Students surveyed for this work identified meaningful benefits of HEERF emergency grants, including the ability to stay enrolled, enroll in more credits, focus better on studies due to reduced stress, and earn better grades,” the report states. “Institutions observed similar positive outcomes among recipients of HEERF student emergency grants. However, most colleges and universities indicate a greater need for emergency aid than their institutions have the resources to fill.”
Additionally, the report makes several recommendations for improving state policies to support students with emergencies, such as establishing emergency aid programs to address unanticipated financial needs, like Minnesota, North Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin. States should also work to create holistic support programs addressing basic needs for students, like housing and food insecurity.
“Results presented in this report from national surveys of student and practitioner experiences with the relief funding suggest states can coordinate policies and programs to address students’ short-term financial needs with broader affordability strategies,” the report states. “To support retention and completion in higher education, states can consider establishing state-funded emergency aid and basic needs programs.”
Publication Date: 10/5/2022