Emergency Aid Is Critical for Housing Insecure Students during COVID-19

As the coronavirus spread across the United States in March, higher education institutions scrambled to close their doors. Abrupt orders to go home for the remainder of the school year created confusion and uncertainty. For some students, these shutdowns have especially daunting implications. Not all college students have other housing options.

Homelessness in higher education is not a new issue, though the number of students affected is unclear. Students may not report this status and colleges may not ask. Surveys of college students estimate that 17 percent (PDF) have experienced homelessness, and 29 percent (PDF) of youth ages 18 to 25 experiencing homelessness were enrolled in college or another education program.

Colleges that evacuated had no consistent plan for students without a place to go, and many schools are addressing students’ circumstances on a case-by-case basis. At some schools, students can petition to stay. A few colleges are keeping some campus facilities, such as dorms and dining halls, open for students with extenuating circumstances. Others are using alumni networks for housing and other resources, working with UHaul to provide free storage for students’ belongings, and partnering with local hotels to give students temporary and discounted housing. 

But one consistent call to action (PDF) from colleges and universities, states, and federal legislators has been for emergency aid. Models of programs already exist and are backed by evidence. During the pandemic, colleges, universities, and legislators can consider building on this infrastructure and expanding aid beyond the current allocations.

Before COVID-19, emergency aid helped students stay in school

Direct relief has helped students withstand times of personal crisis before the pandemic. Emergency aid is an effective stopgap for students when a financial shock sets them back and can aid students in their housing and other emergency needs.

Many colleges and universities already have an emergency aid infrastructure. These initiatives can be scaled or replicated in other schools. The Ohio State University and the University of Albany extend funding up to $1,000 and $2,000, respectively, to students who experience emergency situations such as homelessness, threat of eviction, and other unforeseen crises.

Emergency funds provide essential stability to help students stay in school. Student recipients and administrators reported that aid from the Dreamkeepers and Angel Fund (PDF) program helped students persist to graduation. The share of aid recipients who reenrolled was about the same as the average retention rate at the colleges. Georgia State University has collected data on its assistance program and finds that 70 percent of college seniors aided by their emergency tuition program proceeded to graduate within two semesters.

Use and expand emergency aid for student needs in the pandemic

Both the lessons and infrastructure from prior student emergency funds can strengthen supports to students affected by the crisis, and the federal government has added funds for this purpose. The CARES Act allocates funding to higher education institutions to provide direct emergency aid (PDF) to students for housing, course materials, food, and child care. The CARES Act also allows universities to use a “contract with a scholarship-granting organization designated for the sole purpose of accepting applications from or disbursing funds to students.” As colleges receive this support they, along with nonprofits, philanthropies, housing authorities, and local policymakers should assess the need and opportunity to supplement this assistance.

For example, funding from the CARES Act is restricted to students who can take part in federal student aid programs. This eligibility provision excludes undocumented and international students. Colleges must look to other sources of funding to best support all their students.

Already, colleges and nonprofit organizations across the country are developing and promoting COVID-19-focused emergency aid funds. Hunter College in New York City developed the Coronavirus Emergency Assistance Fund, funded by donors and alumni, and Together We Rise created a fund specifically to help students in college who have aged out of foster care.

Prominently, the Student Relief Fund is connecting students to aid via the FAST fund, which serves 26 colleges around the nation, and Edquity, which distributes aid fast and accessibly through a mobile application. The Student Relief Fund will also help students connect to financial resources on their own campuses. 

What works in an emergency aid fund

Emergency aid can be particularly effective (PDF) in supporting students during a financial shock if programs are set up with students’ needs in mind. These considerations are especially important for colleges and nonprofits developing emergency aid funds to support housing-insecure students during the COVID-19 crisis:

  • There should be a clear application process for students. The emergency aid fund should have a well-defined application process with an application form that students can use with few barriers.  The application should be as simple as possible so the request can be submitted and screened in a timely manner.
  • Aid dollars should be flexible to suit students’ varying emergency needs. Once a student qualifies for the emergency aid, they should have maximum control in allocating the funds to address their most urgent needs, whether it is housing, food, child care, transportation, or something else.
  • Emergency aid should be delivered quickly. Fast delivery of cash benefits allows students to address immediate needs and avoid a deeper crisis. Higher education institutions can leverage technology to process and distribute approved emergency aid funds.

Addressing the sudden displacements of students from their colleges and universities will require fast and nimble support from higher education institutions, foundations, and related nonprofit organizations alike. The COVID-19 crisis has the potential to derail higher education trajectories for many students, especially students facing housing insecurity and other barriers. Providing emergency aid funds to students at this critical junction is essential to help students in persisting in and achieving their higher education goals.

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