Colleges Need a Better Way to Deliver Emergency Aid

Laveta Brigham

Many students did not get a stimulus check or pandemic unemployment insurance, and the federal government denied requests to make it easier for students to receive support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In April, my research team at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice surveyed more than […]

Many students did not get a stimulus check or pandemic unemployment insurance, and the federal government denied requests to make it easier for students to receive support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

In April, my research team at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice surveyed more than 38,000 students. We found that within months of the pandemic’s onset, nearly three in five were short of funds for food and housing. This fall, college enrollment among recent high-school graduates fell by almost 22 percent. Among graduates of high-poverty schools, there was a 33 percent drop. For community colleges, total enrollment is down more than 9 percent.

Without sufficient help from the federal government, many colleges and universities have tried to support students on their own through emergency aid, usually paid for through philanthropy. Like other fast-emerging cash-transfer programs, including the guaranteed-income initiatives of groups like Mayors for Guaranteed Income, emergency-aid programs focus on quickly addressing a financial crisis to help stabilize an individual or a family. In contrast to food pantries, meal vouchers, or gas cards, emergency grants can be used flexibly, so students can meet their most pressing needs and achieve their goals.

But most colleges’ resources pale in comparison to students’ needs. More than 40 percent of undergraduates attend community college, which face a $78 billion funding shortfall. Regional public universities enroll a significant share of students—far more than the Ivy League—but also operate on thin financial margins. Just 25 institutions hold half of all endowment assets—the funds most easily deployed to offer students emergency aid—and the rest try to manage and hope for a gift from MacKenzie Scott.

When my team surveyed 155 colleges and universities across the country to learn about how coronavirus relief affected them, we found that delivering CARES dollars took 44 percent longer compared with their other, much smaller emergency-aid programs, many of which were ad hoc. Because these institutions lacked the capacity to quickly accept and process applications and disburse funds at scale, students waited an average of 13 days for support. Research suggests that the optimal timeline for distribution is 48 hours or less; this is especially important for students with children or with less access to family wealth, and first-generation students.

Emergency-aid distribution doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, the Brooklyn-based company Edquity, where I serve as chief strategy officer, has worked to support institutions with an app that allows students to apply for and receive funds within 24 hours. Over the past five months, we’ve vetted more than 20,000 applications and supported more than 5,500 students, distributing more than $5.1 million at diverse places including Dallas College, Western Governors University, Amarillo College, and Compton College. We are succeeding at getting emergency aid to students the way my grandfather helped me when I was in college—quickly and without judgment.

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