Basic Needs Assistance Bolstered College Student Retention: Report

Southern New Hampshire University students were more likely to stay enrolled if they received Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) assistance.
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Published on December 1, 2023
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  • Southern New Hampshire University students who received basic needs assistance from the school saw higher retention rates.
  • SNHU distributed a total of $107 million in Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund grants to 51,257 qualifying learners to help with basic needs during the pandemic.
  • The report notes that many college students struggle with basic needs insecurity and "fall through the cracks" of existing aid programs.
  • Expanded eligibility for federal SNAP food assistance ended earlier this year.

Billions in federal pandemic relief funding went directly to students — and an October report from the Center for Higher Education Policy and Practice (CHEPP) suggests that assistance helped students stay enrolled.

Congress gave colleges roughly $77 billion in the form of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grants during the COVID-19 pandemic. And much of that money went to students in the form of basic needs grants. That includes students at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), who received HEERF assistance from the school to cover basic needs like housing, food, and transportation.

HEERF was distributed to colleges by the Department of Education in three rounds: HEERF I, HEERF II, and HEERF III. The funding came from various congressional relief packages, including the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act. SNHU distributed a total of $107 million to 51,257 qualifying learners.

The CHEPP report examined the effect that a portion of that funding — $76.7 million that went to 47,381 students — had on students. That report found that SNHU learners who received HEERF funding from the school were more likely to stay enrolled.

HEERF II recipients were 15.5% more likely to stay enrolled, according to CHEPP, and HEERF III recipients were 8.6% more likely to stay enrolled. The report noted that students are typically viewed as "traditional-aged" college students who have enough money to cover food and other basic needs — but that's not reality. Many students struggle with housing and food insecurity but don't qualify for existing aid.

"Many learners fall through the cracks of eligibility thresholds for available supports across federal financial aid, housing, and food programs, both in terms of the amount of funding available as well as the procedural deadlines and requirements," the report reads. "The U.S. government distributes over $22 billion in Title IV funding nationally each year (including both grants and loans), but the majority goes to tuition, with very little left to help with students' basic needs."

Millions of Students Could Soon Lose Food Assistance

The CHEPP report on the effectiveness of basic needs assistance comes as many college students could soon lose access to a key lifeline.

Millions of college students took part in expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility during the pandemic, but that expanded eligibility ended earlier this year. That means that many students who recertified under the pandemic-era exemption this year could lose their benefits next year.

CHEPP noted in a press release that many colleges offer meal swipe plans that help combat student hunger, but many students live off campus and can’t access those programs. CHEPP also called for Congress to make it easier for students to qualify for food assistance.

"It is incumbent on policymakers to use what has been learned from HEERF and the expansion of other benefit programs during the pandemic to find sustainable ways to meet college students' basic needs going forward," the release reads.

"When students don't have to worry about meeting their basic needs, they are able to focus on their studies and are more likely to stay enrolled and graduate. An investment in student access to basic needs support is an investment in our nation's workforce and economy."