Born of Necessity, Emergency Student Aid Should Become Standard Operating Procedure

In the wake of two years that have upended the financial and educational well-being of millions of students, emergency aid has become a watchword of the day for many higher education institutions. Once thought of as “point solutions” used by a relatively small number of colleges and universities, cash assistance programs are now increasingly commonplace — and have been the beneficiaries of a multibillion-dollar federal program that has been deployed in the wake of the pandemic at thousands of campuses across the country. As colleges and universities navigate the ongoing challenges brought on by COVID-19, these programs have fast become a core part of their efforts to deliver much-needed fiscal and humanitarian relief.

But despite its prominence in the current policy discourse, the future of emergency aid as a financial aid strategy remains uncertain. When federal funding runs out, will emergency aid programs continue in any form? Or will institutions return to their old ways?

The truth is that at campuses around the country, emergency aid is proving its potential as a tool to help more students succeed — and to support institutions’ efforts to drive persistence and retention in ways that extend far beyond providing immediate relief. Edquity’s own research has found that when implemented thoughtfully, cash assistance can have a profound impact: a research partnership with Compton College found that students who received cash assistance graduated at twice the rate of those who did not. Grants of just $250, distributed to students within two days of applying, played an essential role in helping students meet their most pressing needs without being thrown off track in their educational pursuits. Analysis of another program with Southern New Hampshire University found that recipients of its emergency aid grant were more likely to persist than non-recipients by eight percentage points, further supporting arguments for emergency aid as a key component of retention strategies as enrollment rates, most notably among students from communities of color, continue to decline. 

What these stories have in common is that they demonstrate the ways in which emergency aid has gone beyond the role of a stopgap solution to become a core part of an institutional strategy — and how it must continue to fill that role, particularly as the cost of postsecondary education continues to rise. Even relatively small cash supports can have significant impacts on recipients’ educational experiences — an infusion of cash to pay a parking ticket, or stay connected to the internet at home, can be just as important (if not more so) than any specific academically focused support. 

The findings of this cash assistance research also provide a window into the scale of the challenge and the potential costs of failing to offer meaningful support. Research from Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice suggests that a majority of college students experience some degree of basic needs insecurity. Leaving those needs unmet will continue to have profound consequences for thousands — if not millions — of students around the country. Simply put, the less we do to address students’ basic needs now, the more our economy and our society will suffer in the long term.

Like all ongoing, widespread issues, basic needs insecurity deserves much more than a one-time response that leaves students vulnerable to continued financial difficulties that pose barriers to persistence and completion. Rather, schools should consider a systems-based approach that can help students facing poverty succeed in the long term. Often this means advocating for greater support from federal and state governments that can result in meaningful investments, such as the millions authorized to support the developments of basic needs centers and staff on campuses in Oregon and California. 

As we consider the status quo of student support, even the name “emergency aid” is, ultimately, misleading. For many students, the crisis of food, utilities, and housing insecurity is something they face every day — and narrowing the focus of cash assistance programs to times of “official” emergency obscures their potential to support students at any point in their educational journey. Fortunately, we now have precedent to acknowledge this, as the language in the federal guidance has explicitly allowed for emergency aid to meet these very issues.

A more systemic approach to emergency aid will also require a proactive stance from an institutional perspective on issues such as tracking and reporting on recipient outcomes, expanding student eligibility for funding, and raising awareness of available funds. Institutional leaders must think of these investments as a core part of their financial support strategy too. After all, if we don’t do the work to understand the potential impact cash assistance can have, we’ll never be able to adjust those programs to help them serve students better. 

As with so many lessons learned over the past year, it’s taken a global crisis to spur fresh thinking around the value of cash assistance and the positive impact it can have on students in need. We can’t let this progress become a casualty of the recovery from COVID-19. We must continue to advocate for the passage of informed policy, such as the Emergency Aid for College Students Act, which was proposed for a second time in Congress just this past month, that would provide the necessary cash-based safety net for students to meet their basic needs.

In short, we must ensure that cash assistance serve a linchpin of institutions’ student success efforts in the years to come — because as a growing number of institutions are learning, a small amount of support at the right time can make a big difference.