Colleges bolstered student initiatives that aided struggling students during the pandemic, but the funds are quickly running out.
When colleges obtained large sums of COVID relief they also received flexibility on how to distribute it. Many schools chose to give grants or stimulus checks to their lowest-income students to help them pay for rent, food, and other necessities. Other colleges distributed allotments equally, regardless of student income. Now, these funds are running dry at a time when inflation is rising, leaving some colleges wondering how the students dependent on these stipends will be able to maintain their enrollment.
Colleges and universities across the country have received federal stimulus aid three times. The first, CARES: Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (HEERF I), required colleges to spend 50% of the funds on emergency grants to students. The second, larger stimulus was the CRRSAA: Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (HEERF II). It came with the provision that colleges must spend at least the same amount on emergency grants as they did before, but it didn’t have to be 50%. The third round of funds was granted through the American Rescue Plan (HEERF III), and the 50% rule was reinstated.
Benedict College, a historically Black college in South Carolina, is concerned that many of its students will be left food insecure with the double whammy of inflation and COVID relief depleting. Students living off-campus face a particular risk of having to quit school because of the high price of gas and rent. Like other colleges, the school has responded to its students’ monetary woes by creating COVID-funded programs that provide free clothes and even financial aid. Others have taken creative measures to ensure that there’s enough student housing available.
Carrie Warick-Smith, vice president of public policy at the Association of Community College Trustees, hopes that colleges will continue to offer aid that keeps students on track to graduation. She said in an interview, “We’re seeing colleges across the country take on a variety of supports for students to help them enroll or stay enrolled in college. Campuses are providing services such as food pantries, help applying for [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-SNAP] benefits, housing partnerships, textbook exchanges and in some cases, even offering tuition freezes.”
Pennsylvania’s Hunger-Free Campus Initiative helps provide meals to food-insecure students. According to their website, over one-third of students know someone forced to drop out of college during the pandemic because they couldn’t afford to eat. Sadly, over half of students facing food or housing insecurity in 2020 failed to apply for support because they weren’t sure how to do it. The initiative provides links to dozens of resources Pennsylvania students can turn to after the COVID grants to colleges expire.
Colleges across the nation are working to create new solutions to help students reliant on COVID-funded programs. Some assist with transportation costs, providing students with gas cards and free bus passes to travel to and from school. Other states, including California and Virginia, have passed laws that expand SNAP eligibility requirements that make more students able to receive the food benefit. SNAP was previously only accessible to certain students, including those who work at least 20 hours per week.
At Benedict College, President Roslyn Clark Artis says that many of their students have received free lunches during their entire K-12 education. “Now between June of their 12th-grade year and August, when they start college, we want them to prove they’re poor? We look at an 8-year-old boy who’s hungry and we all start to open up. But when you look at my 18-year-old football player, you see a grown man who is capable of working and earning his own keep.”
Administrators at colleges across the country are looking to state funding and grants to help fill the gaps left after COVID funds run out. Last year, the California State University System received $15 million from the state legislature to meet students’ basic needs. This type of recurring funding may be a solution that works in other states to eliminate achievement gaps.