More emergency aid is the help today’s students need
By Julie Peller and Edward Conroy
Imagine you’re a college student. You moved to campus for fall semester earlier this fall. It was a financial struggle to ensure you have everything you need, but your part-time job will help to make ends meet. You are nervous about COVID-19 and excited to start classes. Unfortunately, the positive case numbers continued to rise on campus, and your institution made the difficult decision to move to remote learning. Jobs near campus — including yours — dried up without students to support them. You signed a year-long lease for an off-campus apartment, and now are without your only source of income. Instead of attending your classes in person, you’re now stuck self-isolating in an apartment you can no longer afford and do not have the means to travel back home.
This has been the reality for too many of today’s students this fall. The only certainty in this time is uncertainty, and today’s college students need support to manage these changes without undue financial stress. Some colleges and universities began an in-person semester only to have instruction quickly shifted online as cases increased, after many students had signed leases and travelled back to school. Others remained fully online, protecting students from the virus but exposing them to loss of on-campus jobs or access to child care centers. Since the spring, students have also experienced job loss and food insecurity, and continue to experience persistently high rates of food insecurity, which will likely continue as many lose access to the vital supports provided on campus. And these constant changes are making things even more difficult for students who were already struggling before the pandemic, particularly those from low-income backgrounds.
Emergency aid — grants provided to students to deal with unexpected costs — can help to stem the tide of uncertainty and help students persist in college. While emergency aid and the need for it existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this mechanism became critical to millions of students this spring as campuses nationwide abruptly closed campuses. Gillian Flannery, a senior at University of Wisconsin-Madison, received emergency aid this spring after classes moved online and she lost her on-campus job. She had depended on that income to pay rent for her off-campus apartment, food, and essentials in online learning — her internet and phone bills. She also had the added travel expense to return home. With $800 in emergency aid, Gillian was able to return home and adjust to online instruction without interruption to her coursework or unexpected debt.
This past spring, Congress allocated $6 billion in federal emergency aid for students like Gillian through the CARES Act — a tidy sum, but far short of what is needed. Unfortunately, in addition to not meeting the full need on campuses, much of this funding did not reach students as it was intended. Confusing implementation guidelines from the Education Department and delayed distribution coupled with onerous reporting requirements led to some institutions sitting on funds and others limiting their students’ access to funding. Further, despite lack of Congressional directive to do so, undocumented students were disqualified from accessing federal student emergency aid funding, and students who did not, or could not, previously file a FAFSA to qualify for financial aid faced numerous barriers to financial support.
But, the issues shown this spring are a testament to implementation, not conception. The CARES Act — though imperfect — was a solution to help students who were struggling in the spring, and today’s students are facing additional, and different, challenges this fall.
Congress should provide additional funding to colleges and universities for student emergency aid to bridge the ever-widening gaps. To avoid repeating prior implementation issues, any additional funding must be accompanied by clear, unambiguous guidance from the Department of Education so institutions can be confident in delivering money to students in a timely manner and with as little administrative burden as possible to students. A student who needs $200 to get a plane ticket home because campus has closed cannot wait two weeks for forms to be processed.
Too many of today’s college students did not receive the support they needed to succeed in higher education before the pandemic. The current crisis has made the lack of support all the more devastating, especially as students are forced to react to rapidly changing plans from colleges. Congress must act now to give students additional emergency aid needed to cover unexpected expenses and ensure they can still succeed.
Julie Peller is the executive director of Higher Learning Advocates.
Edward Conroy is the associate director of institutional transformation at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.