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Biden administration urges colleges to use covid relief funds to meet students’ basic needs

The call comes as the Education Department issues new guidance on how schools can use the money to help with housing and food insecurity.

First lady Jill Biden, with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, speaks at Bergen Community College in Paramus, N.J., on Thursday. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)
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As the public health crisis continues to rattle college students, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and first lady Jill Biden are imploring schools to use pandemic relief funds to assist with housing, food and other basic needs.

“As I’ve traveled the country and spoken with students at all types of colleges and universities, I’ve heard them share heartbreaking struggles about finding safe and nurturing child care, concerns about not having regular access to nutritious meals, and fears about where they can sleep safely at night,” Cardona said at Bergen Community College in New Jersey on Thursday. “We can’t let basic-needs insecurity stand in the way of our students achieving their American Dream.”

The call to action comes as the Education Department is taking a three-prong approach to addressing the enduring impact of the pandemic on some of the most vulnerable college students. The federal agency is making $198 million available through a competitive grant for colleges that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, encouraging recipients to use the money to tackle food and housing insecurity, among other things.

The department has separately issued guidance to colleges on ways they can use their existing congressional relief funds to help students facing scarcity. It is also letting schools use financial aid data to identify and communicate with students who may be eligible for public benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Congress has provided a total of $76.2 billion for colleges and universities to pivot online, stave off steep financial losses and help students weather the public health crisis. Schools have been using the money for mental health services, clearing past-due tuition balances and emergency aid for students facing housing, employment and food insecurities.

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Although college students faced basic-needs insecurity long before the emergence of the coronavirus, the pandemic exacerbated the problem, as many lost jobs and struggled to access support services. Even as the labor market rebounds and the strain on household budgets eases, data from the Census Bureau and elsewhere show young people are still having a difficult time affording food, shelter and child care.

Higher-education experts say those challenges are evident in enrollment declines at colleges and universities that serve large populations of students from low-income households.

A 2020 survey of 38,602 students by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University found 3 in 5 were experiencing food or housing instability in the early months of the pandemic.

Students have since benefited from an array of relief programs funded by Congress, including emergency grants and the child tax credit. But with the end of the child-care payments and emergency aid drying up, college students are financially stretched, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, who runs the Hope Center.

“The pandemic has been dragging on and on and it’s depleting people’s resources,” she said. “Students who have left and want to come back are saying it’s hard to return because of things like rent. And students who are enrolled right now are saying, ‘I’m going to leave because I don’t have money for rent, I can’t take care of my kids.’ ”

Despite the rising costs of college, a Washington Post-Ipsos poll found that most students still think getting a degree is important. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

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Affordable child care has become a perennial challenge for colleges students with children. And the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus has compounded the problem, as student parents try to navigate quarantines, testing protocols, and school and day-care closures.

Bergen Community College, recognizing the formidable challenge of raising children while pursuing a degree, used pandemic relief funds to offer tuition-free enrollment at its on-campus early learning center in the fall. The center, established in 1982, educates and cares for about 45 children ages 2 to 5 each semester.

The first lady, an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, praised Bergen’s development center and related her own experience of witnessing students struggle with child care.

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“You know, it’s hard to express what it’s like to have a bright, engaged student — someone who has so much passion and potential — fade out of my class because they can’t find a babysitter,” Biden said Thursday. “They start missing lectures … they fall behind and just can’t catch up. It breaks my heart. For parents, especially moms, child care makes graduation possible.”

Through three rounds of federal stimulus funding, colleges and universities have tried to beat back the worst of the pandemic and keep students enrolled.

Inconsistent and unclear guidance from the Trump administration on how to spend the money created confusion in the initial rollout, but the Education Department has since clarified the parameters of the funding. With that clarification and the continued challenges posed by the pandemic, colleges, particularly those with significant student needs, have largely spent their allocations.

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The $198 million competitive grant fund is the last pot of relief aid to be released to institutions of higher education. Congress set aside that money for colleges with the greatest amount of unmet financial need related to the pandemic.

In awarding the grants, the Education Department said it will prioritize community college and rural institutions that serve high percentages of low-income students and have experienced enrollment declines since the start of the pandemic.