Emergency aid has helped schools hold onto students

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This week’s Higher Education Newsletter comes from Pete D’Amato, a data visualization developer and data reporter for The Hechinger Report.

By Pete D’Amato

 

The disruption of Covid-19 created broad economic pain that squarely hit the types of students who might struggle to complete college even in a good economy. Lone Star College, a two-year system in the greater Houston area, began planning early in the pandemic to buy laptops as courses transitioned online, but quickly realized that cash — specifically the lack of it — would be as big a hurdle as technology for its students. And when the federal CARES Act pushed emergency aid out to colleges that spring, the extra money actually helped raise retention rates from 2019 levels, according to Chancellor Stephen Head.
 
“I think there’s a direct correlation between us providing financial assistance and them not dropping out of school,” Head told me in February.
 
Many of those attending Lone Star are low-income students, and job losses, which hit the nearby hospitality and leisure industries worst during the pandemic, meant they had few options to cover unexpected expenses. About 20,000 of them got direct grants from the nearly $30 million that the system received through the CARES Act (at least half of which was required to go directly to student aid).
 
Most U.S. colleges and universities have had to start some form of emergency aid grant program with the roughly $35 billion in higher education relief funding passed by Congress, more than $12 billion of which was mandated to go directly to students. (As a point of comparison, students at nonprofit and public colleges who receive Title IV aid, such as Pell grants, spent an estimated $21 billion in the 2018-19 academic year on tuition, fees, books and room and board, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of federal data.)
 
Yet little is known about the effects of such emergency grant programs on college student performance, according to Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of sociology and medicine at Temple University. This is partly because colleges rarely have formal processes for doling out cash to students in need.
 
In order for a student to have gotten emergency aid before the pandemic, somebody usually had to “notice them,” according to Goldrick-Rab. “A student has a professor who finds out they're homeless, because they look like it, and then helps them find their way to the dean of students.”
 
Years of watching students stumble due to financial trouble led Goldrick-Rab to join Edquity – a startup founded in 2016 that offers colleges a technology platform with which to manage emergency aid programs – as chief strategy officer.
 
The platform allows colleges to screen students and allocate funding based on who would receive the greatest impact from the grant. In practice this means it often selects those with the lowest likelihood of staying in school and graduating, but who would see their chance of success rise most with a grant.
 
For example, in May, the company worked with Compton College, a community college in southern Los Angeles County, to distribute emergency grants to students affected by the pandemic. Since the program was designed before the college had received money from CARES, it had a limited pot of institutional funding, which it distributed to 90 students out of 289 who applied.
 
An Edquity analysis of the Compton program found that students who received the grants were twice as likely to complete their degree program by August of 2020 as those who were not selected, graduating at a rate of 22 percent compared to 11 percent of nonrecipients.
 
As the flow of emergency aid slows down, colleges will have to strike a balance between targeting cash to those who need it most and getting money into students’ hands quickly, according to Goldrick-Rab. Edquity’s online portal allows students to apply at all times of the day and receive a decision on their aid eligibility almost immediately. The majority of students in the Compton program received money within 48 hours of applying.
 
“Disbursement is critical,” said Goldrick-Rab. “Colleges typically take the emergency aid and put it in the student’s financial aid account,” instead of transferring it into a student’s bank account.  “That can take a couple of days, and literally every day matters in an emergency.”
 
While anecdotal evidence and the data from Compton are only the first step to showing the efficacy of emergency aid, Goldrick-Rab sees properly designed cash transfer programs as a way to help even those students who left college due to issues such as child care or housing insecurity in the early days of the pandemic.
 
“A lot of students at the most risk of these problems have already dropped out,” said Goldrick-Rab. “One of the biggest questions is going to be, can we use emergency aid to bring them back?”
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Related Hechinger reads 
COLUMN: Cancel all student debt
 
Interactive: Explore who gains the most from canceling student debt
 
How a decline in community college students is a big problem for the economy
 
‘It’s just too much’: Why students are abandoning community college in droves
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