The University Network

Student Emergency Aid Must Be Equitably, Transparently And Expediently Disbursed

In mid-April, colleges and universities across the United States began to receive their share of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) — the government’s $14.25 billion care package to help institutions and their students get back on their feet. 

The Department of Education mandated that half of the money that each college or university receives must be used to provide emergency financial aid grants to students to help them pay for food, housing, course materials, technology, health care and childcare. While the Department of Education is relatively lenient in its instructions as to how colleges and universities must disburse the funds to students, it is strict about who is eligible. 

And some institutions have been slow to develop effective and transparent ways to inform students about when and if they will be able to receive any aid.

Roshelle is one of those students. 

Three years ago, Roshelle proudly stepped foot on Sacramento State University’s campus. She had a $7,000 scholarship and an internship lined up at the California State Capitol. 

Because she was a full-time college student, however, she struggled to find a paying job. And that pushed her into housing and food insecurity. Employers wouldn’t hire her, she said, even when she manipulated her course schedule to fit their demands. 

When the costs of tuition at Sacramento State became overwhelming before the start of the current spring semester, she decided to take classes at a community college — Bakersfield College — to save a few bucks before re-enrolling at Sacramento State in the fall. 

But COVID-19 made Roshelle’s situation worse, catapulting her even further into housing and food insecurity. And, so far, she has yet to receive a dime in federal aid. 

According to Sacramento State, Roshelle won’t be receiving any of the $17.8 million worth of student emergency aid funds it received. Her current enrollment at Bakersfield College made her ineligible. 

“You have to understand,” Roshelle said. “For someone like me who has been so dedicated to her institution, being told that I’m not eligible for the aid that’s coming in is really frustrating to hear.”

“I feel this anger because I’m literally a student advocate on campus,” she added. “And to be prevented from receiving this help that I desperately need, it’s a rough spot to be in.”

Roshelle said she also reached out to Bakersfield College last week to inquire about HEERF aid, but has yet to hear back. And there is no information posted on the school’s website. 

“It really does put you in a state of depression,” Roshelle said. “It’s frustrating to experience something like this.”

Bakersfield College’s student portion of HEERF aid is $6 million.

With the HEERF money coming in to Bakersfield College and other U.S. institutions, there’s a need to make sure that all dollars are equitably, transparently and expediently disbursed. 

And that’s what the nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger is trying to do. Along with its partner nonprofits, Rise and Challah for Hunger, Swipe Out Hunger has developed a framework to help students get a seat at the decision table. That way, students can voice their concerns and feel more comfortable, knowing when and how they and their peers will receive aid. 

“We know that each individual university will make the decisions on how to allocate the funding,” said Robb Friedlander, Swipe Out Hunger’s advocacy and organizing manager. “What we wanted to do is really create a framework in which our students could advocate to their universities and their colleges to make sure that the aid was appropriately and responsibly allocated to the students who most need it.”

On its website, the nonprofit has templates to help students draft letters that they could send to both their presidents’ offices and student affairs offices to advocate for fair distribution. While the templates use language specific to the CARES Act, the principles outlined in them are always applicable when administering aid.

“Once that CARES act funding is fully given out, there will be more opportunities and more need for all of these form framework pieces moving forward,” Friedlander said. “We know that this is not the end of the aid to students.”

In addition, Swipe Out Hunger’s website offers tactics to help students amplify their advocacy. The nonprofit provides details on the most effective ways for students to create a petition, build a coalition and inform their communities. 

“Students need to be at the forefront of this conversation around higher ed basic needs,” said Maddie McCarthy, the chief strategy officer at Swipe Out Hunger. 

The organization points to Minneapolis College as an example of an institution doing the most to make sure students’ voices are heard. Before executing its fund distribution plan, the school had administrators and students participate in a Zoom meeting to discuss the pros and cons of its plan.

As an example of proper transparency, Swipe Out Hunger points to the University of West Florida, which has laid out eligibility criteria in detail and created a table that breaks down how much aid students can expect to receive.

The nonprofit also gave a shout out to the University of Southern California, Santa Ana College, and the University of Texas at San Antonio for being quick to develop and publish their applications for student submission.

Many institutions are also offering additional aid through student relief funds of their own, often supported by alumni donors. 

UC Berkeley, for example, intends to give 300 grants to undocumented students through its privately funded Student Emergency Fund.

And Ohio University has been offering microgrants to help nearly any student, regardless of citizen status. OHIO has already given out more than $160,000 and will continue to give money out until the fund is dried up. Many other institutions have taken similar actions to help their students.