Here’s How Students Can Get COVID-19 Relief Funds

The Department of Education says a significant portion of the $198 million it will distribute this year should address students' basic needs.
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Updated on September 29, 2023
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  • The federal government will distribute $198 million to colleges and universities in 2022.
  • Qualifying institutions must spend a significant portion of their funds on grants for students.
  • Recent reports show previous federal aid kept college students in school during the pandemic.

A new round of COVID-19 relief funding promises to put aid directly into students' pockets thanks to recent federal guidelines.

The Department of Education (ED) announced in late January that it would distribute another $198 million in American Rescue Plan funds to colleges and universities in 2022. Guidelines published this month in the Federal Register show that many institutions will be forced to use much of their funds on financial aid grants for students.

Students may also benefit from institutional debt forgiveness and increased funding for programs that address students' basic needs, such as the cost of childcare and housing subsidies. These are all valid uses of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grants, according to the Federal Register.

ED Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement in January that the pandemic has worsened barriers to housing, food, transportation, and food for college students across the country.

"We cannot let this be a barrier to student success, particularly for students who have contended with these issues for far too long," Cardona said in the statement.

New HEERF Guidelines Prioritize Students

ED will prioritize community colleges and rural schools that serve high percentages of low-income students and are experiencing enrollment declines. Institutions that educate high percentages of graduate students will also receive priority for HEERF grants in 2022.

To qualify under the first category, a community college's student body must be at least 50% Pell Grant recipients, and its enrollment must have declined at least 4.5% year to year.

Schools that qualify under this priority must spend at least 50% of whatever funds they receive on emergency financial aid grants for students, according to the Register. Schools may use remaining funds on student programs, COVID-19 mitigation efforts, support for enrollment efforts, and expanding in-school programs for in-demand jobs.

Meanwhile, schools serving a higher percentage of graduate students must commit even more of their HEERF funds to student aid grants. According to the Register, these institutions must commit all of their funds to make emergency aid grants to graduate students.

ED defines these schools as any college or university where graduate students comprise at least 90% of the student body.

The department also is prioritizing institutions left out of previous HEERF disbursements due to errors in applying for funds.

Private, for-profit schools are not eligible for any American Rescue Plan funds. These schools have been excluded from previous HEERF disbursements, too.

HEERF Helped

College presidents in a November 2021 American Council on Education (ACE) survey reported that previous HEERF funds kept students enrolled and provided support to meet new demands caused by the pandemic.

The ACE survey found that 93% of college presidents agreed that HEERF helped keep their schools' students enrolled through direct financial support. Otherwise, these learners may have dropped out due to economic strains caused by the pandemic.

Of community college presidents surveyed, 99% said the direct support helped retain students, according to ACE's poll.

A report from the Hope Center at Temple University shows more support for HEERF funds. In a survey of nearly 200,000 students, 69% of respondents said emergency aid increased their chances of graduating.