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Washington pumped $35 billion into emergency grants for college students. Here’s how it’s going.

The proliferation of emergency aid programs is one of the few trends to emerge from the pandemic higher education experts hope will remain

Morgan State University, a public historically Black research university in Baltimore, is among thousands of schools that have received federal stimulus dollars to support emergency student aid. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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An earlier version of this article said Congress earmarked $30 billion in emergency aid for college students. The correct amount is $35 billion. It also said that Sara Goldrick-Rab was a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University. She is a professor of sociology and medicine. This version has been corrected.

It had been almost five months since Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore Brittany Ofori lost her part-time job at a substance abuse center when she received an unexpected offer of help.

A campus organization for first-generation college students like Ofori, 20, emailed her in February about coronavirus pandemic relief grants from the public university in Richmond. At the time, Ofori was using her savings to pay bills. Living at home alleviated one expense, but not all of them. And none of her job interviews were leading to work.

“When I got the email, I was like, ‘This money could go towards so many things: food, bills or taking a summer class,’ ” said Ofori, a psychology major who applied for and received $2,000. “The last year has been hard, and it’s still going.”

Colleges and universities are flush with money to help students like Ofori. Congress has earmarked $35 billion in emergency aid since last spring for students facing housing, employment and food insecurities.

It is the largest federal investment in grants to rescue students in crisis and an undertaking rife with bureaucratic hurdles. Still, the proliferation of emergency aid programs is one of the few trends to emerge from the pandemic that higher education experts hope will remain after the health crisis.

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Schools, even those that offered emergency aid before the public health crisis, are learning critical lessons about serving students whose needs are unrelenting and evolving.

The pandemic laid bare the precarious existence of college students accustomed to stretching every dollar to cover their basic needs — and pushed others into those conditions. Lingering unemployment and underemployment have created a protracted crisis. Students who needed laptops when classes pivoted online last year now need help with unpaid tuition.

“We get emails regularly from students who continue to tell us that they are struggling to meet their basic needs,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Education Department. “Supporting students and ensuring they are able to continue their education will help with a strong recovery.”

The stimulus-backed aid programs could also influence future federal policy. On the campaign trail, President Biden proposed a federal program to help community colleges with grants for students facing unexpected financial challenges. The White House declined to elaborate on plans to further develop or promote the policy, but student advocates are encouraged by the idea.

“We knew before the pandemic that an emergency fund for students who were just a flat tire or medical bill away from dropping out would keep many on a course to graduate,” said Kyle Southern, higher education policy and advocacy director for Young Invincibles, an advocacy group. “Now, the administration should pursue this needed investment … for all students regardless of immigration status or institution.”

VCU is among hundreds of schools that had offered emergency financial assistance before the pandemic. Education loans and grants are not designed to cover car repair or other unexpected expenses that can derail students, so schools have used donations and institutional funds to help those in need.

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But scaling up programs that typically help a handful of people to meet the needs of thousands is challenging.

With the first round of stimulus funding, VCU automatically awarded half of the $10.1 million it received to students whose family income was low enough to qualify for the federal Pell grant. The remainder was made available to other students who were eligible for financial aid.

The strategy allowed the university to quickly spend down its allocation. But halfway through the process, administrators realized the application for students who were requesting aid was a problem. The questions required too much time for everyone involved.

“The demand was so great that within like a week we had 1,500 applications,” said Tomikia LeGrande, vice president for strategy and enrollment management at VCU. “You’re talking about a time of year when we’re preparing for the summer and awarding for the fall, on top of trying to quickly review these applications to help students. We had to simplify it.”

The university redesigned the application, creating an online form that students could complete in five minutes. The changes helped VCU distribute 99 percent of the second pot of student aid in 45 days, according to the university.

Ofori estimates it took about two minutes to fill out and submit the request. It was one less stress in a year with no shortage of them. Losing a family member to the coronavirus has been devastating. Losing the freedom of living and attending classes has left Ofori feeling isolated, even in a house full of siblings.

“It gets overwhelming,” Ofori said. “Home can be chaotic. I spend a lot of time inside and it is taking a toll.”

Being mindful of the hardships plaguing his students has been a guiding principle for Keith Curry, president of Compton College in California.

As the pandemic took hold last year, Curry partnered with Grubhub and Everytable to deliver meals to students after realizing a campus-based food bank would require some to use public transportation and risk exposure to the coronavirus.

“We’re trying to figure out ways to keep people safe and provide their basic needs,” Curry said. “I was born and raised in Compton. I get it. I know our students are struggling.”

One of Compton’s biggest challenges became providing financial assistance to students in an efficient and equitable way. Curry enlisted the help of Edquity, an education technology company that developed an app to help colleges manage emergency aid programs.

Fighting Food Insecurity

The app asks applicants about their needs, supports and expected graduation date, prioritizing those with hardships that could derail their completion. Approvals are made within 24 hours and grants are disbursed within two days.

Now in his last year at Compton, Kevin Quincy Jones, 51, who came to higher education later in life, has relied on two emergency grants to pay for broadband service and groceries. Having been homeless, Jones said he is resourceful at putting every dollar to work, but the $550 in aid gave him a chance to focus on graduating instead of getting by.

“It meant I could spend an extra $50 on groceries, buy quality food,” Jones said. “The overall support has just kept me going.”

Keeping students on the path to graduation is the ultimate goal of emergency grants. The pandemic has sidelined many who have to prioritize supporting their families over completing their education. That could have been Brittany Dominguez, a senior at Carleton College in Minnesota.

When she returned home to Houston after the pandemic was declared last spring, Dominguez, 22, took a job at Chick-fil-A to help her mom with expenses. Working that job and her work-study job remotely while taking a full load of courses was overwhelming. The encouragement of her sociology department and the unexpected award of stimulus funding made a difference, she said.

“There was a lot going on with my family,” Dominguez said. “My mom has a series of jobs to keep a steady flow of income, in addition to her being a housekeeper and nanny, and I was helping her while working myself. It was difficult.”

The latest crisis: Low-income students are dropping out of college this fall in alarming numbers

Carleton automatically gave Dominguez $1,000 in aid from its first pool of coronavirus pandemic aid and $1,100 from the second pool because she was a Pell grant recipient. The private liberal arts college used some of its allotment for other students who did not automatically qualify but needed help as well.

Morgan State University in Baltimore employed a similar strategy in dividing up its allocation of relief money. The public research university of 7,634 students has provided about 9,300 emergency grants over the spring and fall semesters. And the need is not letting up.

“Students are still very much impacted by unemployment … illness, medical bills and funeral expenses,” said Kara Turner, vice president of enrollment and student success at Morgan State. “I don’t anticipate our emergency fund going away.”

Turner worries the historically Black university is not reaching everybody who may need support. Morgan State participated in a study conducted by the nonprofit Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, which surveyed 195,000 students at 202 institutions about basic needs insecurity in the fall.

Only half of the students were aware of federal emergency grants, and only 1 in 5 of all respondents had applied. Yet nearly 3 in 5 of the 195,000 students said they lacked adequate access to food or housing.

“It was really sobering,” Turner said. “We sent numerous emails, but still have work to do. Maybe partnering with student groups would help get the word out.”

Communication is not the only problem identified in the Hope Center survey. Among the students who applied for emergency aid, nearly 6 in 10 said the experience was stressful.

A common complaint about emergency grant programs is that colleges force students to prove their poverty with lengthy essays explaining why they need help. Some schools also require applicants to be in good financial and academic standing, criteria advocates say ignore how financial disruptions can affect students.

“We’ve got to get money in students’ hands in a way that doesn’t dehumanize them,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of sociology and medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, who founded the Hope Center.

She also worries that colleges are relying too much on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to determine need. The form uses income data from the prior two years, which fails to capture a student’s current financial situation.

Colleges are walking a tightrope with stimulus funds. Institutions must get money to students without making missteps that could trigger an audit from the Education Department.

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The Trump administration issued inconsistent guidance and curtailed student eligibility. Out of fear of running afoul of the department, colleges almost exclusively gave emergency grants from the first stimulus law to students receiving federal financial aid. Critics of that approach say it added an unnecessary hurdle and created inequities in distribution that Congress never intended.

“Many colleges are still very cautious,” said Cooper of the Education Department. “The initial challenges of last year — unclear and often changing guidance — created fear. Institutional leaders are also watching their state legislatures to make sure their appropriations will remain consistent so they can make appropriate plans.”

The Education Department has continued to clarify the parameters of the grants. Since the Biden administration issued its guidance in March, there has been a steady uptick in spending.

Among other things, the latest guidance allows colleges, with a student’s consent, to use grants to pay off outstanding balances dating back to March 13, 2020 — when President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. That would clear the way for a student with a hold on their transcript to re-enroll or transfer elsewhere.

Although the guidance did not resolve the issue of whether international and undocumented students can receive grants — a matter still under review at the department — it did clarify the eligibility of refugees and students granted asylum.

Schools have a year to spend the stimulus dollars once they are released by the Education Department. Of the two rounds of emergency funding awarded to date, colleges and universities have spent approximately 99 percent of the first pot and 58 percent of the second as of Thursday, according to the department. The third round of money is slated to be released in the coming weeks.

“Schools are trying to be mindful of some of the longer-term effects of the pandemic,” said Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “I can see schools wanting to hold some funds back for students who come to them later with covid-related issues. This [crisis] is causing extended pain.”