Colleges Received $77B in COVID-19 Pandemic Relief. Now What?

The tap has run dry on HEERF, the largest government grant program in the history of higher education. Experts worry that financial insecurity remains a huge hurdle for students.
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  • The federal government has awarded emergency funds through different programs since March 2020.
  • Half of that money went directly to students through grants.
  • Advocates hope to lobby lawmakers into making emergency grant funding permanent.

The last of the federal government's Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) are now out the door, but the challenges those funds were meant to address remain significant hurdles.

Since March 2020, three different government acts have helped students and higher education endure the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. At least half of the $77 billion in grants awarded went directly to students to subsidize housing and school tuition, and cover other living expenses in a pinch.

But to think that those issues in higher education have suddenly disappeared would be folly, Tanya Ang, managing director for advocacy at Higher Learning Advocates (HLA), told BestColleges.

"I don't think the pandemic created new problems for students," she said. "I think it exacerbated existing problems."

With the end of emergency aid at many schools — particularly community colleges with limited resources — many students will experience the same challenges as before the pandemic. The difference is many will no longer get funds from their institution to help overcome those obstacles.

Less Money, More Problems for College Students

Food insecurity is a pervasive problem at colleges across the country. Approximately 1 in 3 college students surveyed in a 2020 Hope Center study reported they experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days.

So, it should be of little surprise that students surveyed said food was their top priority when using HEERF emergency grants, according to a survey from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). Jill Desjean, a policy analyst at NASFAA, said paying for books and housing were the two top concerns following food costs.

These were issues before the pandemic, and there's no evidence to suggest that they won't persist.

"They won't just go away with the pandemic," Desjean said.

Congress seemingly signaled that they understood that students needed emergency funds beyond COVID-related expenses, she added.

The first vessel for HEERF came through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which said students needed to prove they had pandemic-related expenses to apply for grants. The two following acts that also designated HEERF funds stripped that requirement, allowing wider uses for funds.

The widespread job losses caused in the initial months of the pandemic catalyzed awarding emergency funds. Because that issue no longer persists, Ang said students likely wouldn't need as much funds as in 2020, but they'll still need some.

Reports Show Government Aid Helped Keep Students in School

The primary goal of emergency funds, both Ang and Desjean said, is to keep students enrolled in school. A surprise one-time expense shouldn't be the difference between graduating and stopping out.

Surveys have shown that emergency funds go a long way in keeping students enrolled.

A 2020 survey from the Hope Center found that 69% of students said emergency aid increased their chances of graduating, while 82% said these funds increased their well-being.

"Emergency aid helped me avoid eviction and allowed me to purchase food," one student told the Hope Center, according to the report.

"It helped with internet and utilities for school," another student wrote. "It allowed me to not have to work overtime after being sick."

“A 2020 survey from the Hope Center found that 69% of students said emergency aid increased their chances of graduating, while 82% said these funds increased their well-being.”

Desjean said many of NASFAA's member institutions conducted their own student surveys, and those reports came to similar conclusions to those of the Hope Center. Mainly, she said, students were much more likely to enroll in subsequent semesters if they received aid. Those students reported less stress and an ability to borrow less in student loans if they received emergency aid.

Ang added that the Department of Education prioritized two-year community colleges in later HEERF rounds, and these institutions likely benefited the most.

These institutions rarely have the ability to create their own emergency grant programs for students, unlike wealthier four-year institutions with large endowments. Community colleges also enroll higher percentages of historically underrepresented students, meaning these extra funds likely went to the students who could benefit from them the most, Ang said.

What's Next for Supporting College Students

Simply put, there isn't a next step planned at the federal level, Ang said.

She and HLA have been lobbying recently to create a permanent emergency aid program for higher education students.

She said the U.S. House of Representatives' draft of the 2023 budget included $5 million in emergency aid funding thanks to Rep. Joseph Morelle of New York. However, the Senate version of that budget left this funding off its appropriations bill, meaning it didn't go through.

Ang added that HLA has also worked with Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota on the Emergency Grant Aid for College Students Act. She said the goal would be to include this act in any reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), but previous attempts to reauthorize the act have fallen short. Congress hasn't reauthorized the HEA since 2008.

Moreover, the need for these funds may soon spike again for non-pandemic reasons.

Desjean said the 2021 appropriations budget set aside money for the government and institutions to inform students about the potential for financial aid, including emergency aid. This could lead to more awareness about emergency funds, but without the actual federal funds to deliver on increased requests.

"Students should be able to know that funding is available," Desjean said. "But the more people are aware of it will increase requests for these types of ways, and money is finite."

There are still some more immediate pathways for institutions to turn federal funds into emergency aid. The Department of Education recently unveiled the College Completion Fund for Postsecondary Student Success to increase graduation rates. Experts say emergency aid is one way to boost graduation and retention, so continued investment in similar completion funds could be a back door for more emergency aid grants.

Still, advocates, including Ang and Desjean, say a concrete plan for permanent aid programs is needed.