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Student-Centered HEERF Is a Model for Education Policy

Policymakers must increase postsecondary funding and overhaul funding models. The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund offers a model they should embrace.

October 4, 2021

At a Glance

Policymakers must increase postsecondary funding and overhaul funding models. The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund offers a model they should embrace.

Crystal Green Senior Manager  

Before the pandemic struck, cuts in funding for higher education had been pushing added costs onto students for several years. And now the COVID-driven economic crisis has intensified financial challenges not only for students and their families, but also for colleges and universities. Now more than ever, state and federal policymakers must make use of all tools and resources at their disposal to increase postsecondary funding and overhaul funding models. Decisive action is critical to ensure that community colleges and other institutions have the capacity to combat revenue losses and offer all students the support they need to enroll, persist, and graduate.

The HEERF program is groundbreaking because it sets a precedent for how education policies should be designed: with students at the center.

One of those resources is the funding available through the federal government’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which has sent billions of dollars to U.S. colleges and universities over the past year and a half. Originally established in the CARES Act of March 2020, the HEERF grant program offers institutions increased resources and flexibility to take intentional and responsible steps to maintain programming and better serve students, especially those that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, including students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and students with disabilities.

The rules governing the distribution of HEERF funding require institutions to use at least 50 percent of the money for direct grants to students. They can use the other 50 percent to offset revenue decreases caused by declining enrollments, reductions in state funding, and other factors. In guidance regarding the latest round of HEERF funding (HEERF III, which is part of the American Rescue Plan), the U.S. Department of Education says colleges and universities can also distribute the emergency assistance to students who are not eligible for traditional financial aid but are still in need of support, including undocumented individuals and DACA recipients.

A Novel Approach, With Students at the Center

The HEERF program sets a precedent for how education policies should be designed: with students at the center.

It is clear that this grant program, with its novel approach to funding, has benefitted more students than traditional Title IV financial aid would. Federal and state officials should take note of HEERF’s successes and work to craft policies built on a similar model, with the goal of financially supporting efforts that not only help students persist and complete their postsecondary educations but also provide institutions with the resources to modernize and transform their programming to meet both students’ and employers’ needs. Funding models designed to achieve those goals are especially important for institutions with community-driven missions, like historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU), minority-serving institutions, and community colleges.

The country needs a more permanent solution that eliminates the systemic challenges exacerbated and exposed by the pandemic.

Additionally, JFF urges institutions to use HEERF aid to remove financial hurdles for students and provide the wraparound supports that play such an important role in helping many students persist and succeed. For example, we believe colleges and universities can use HEERF funding to provide comprehensive career counseling and to partner with community organizations that can offer critical services, such as housing, food, child care, and health care assistance.

According to an overview of the HEERF III program from the Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education, several colleges have launched initiatives that use HEERF funding and other resources from pandemic relief packages for such purposes. Here are some examples:

  • Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) used 25 percent of its CARES institutional funds for emergency grants to help students experiencing financial instability pay for basic needs such as food, housing, child care, and health care. In addition, NOVA used HEERF money to retire the pandemic debt of more than 5,000 students.
  • Delaware State University (an HBCU in Dover, Delaware) used its HEERF III funds to cancel an average of $3,200 in debt for each of more than 200 recent graduates who were financially impacted by the pandemic.
  • Lorain County Community College (LCCC) in Ohio piloted a rapid retraining program called Fast-Track to Employment Certificates, which offers a broad selection of high-quality short-term training programs that can help dislocated workers build the in-demand skills they need to rejoin the labor market and embark on careers that offer opportunities for economic advancement. LCCC used HEERF funding to make the 16-week courses tuition-free.

HEERF provides much-needed emergency aid that institutions are using to help students address the negative impacts of the pandemic and continue their educations—but it’s just a stopgap measure. The country needs a more permanent solution that eliminates the systemic challenges exacerbated and exposed by the pandemic.

House Proposals Advance Equity and Success

In July, Democrats in the House of Representatives took a step in that direction, proposing a $29.3 billion increase in spending for the Department of Education in a plan that includes $8 million for a pilot program to give college students grants to pay for housing, food, transportation, and access to physical and mental health care. They also proposed $5 million for a program that supports collaboration among colleges with established remote learning infrastructures and minority-serving institutions.

JFF applauds these proposals. To effectively advance equity and student success, we believe education financing policies must focus on a wider set of needs and recognize the serious challenges students are facing today. Most of all, the country needs policies that give institutions flexibility in the way they use public funds to offer aid to learners. That’s the most effective way to ensure that all learners have equitable access to the supports they need to continue along their college and career pathways. The steps policymakers take now can truly make a difference in connecting—and reconnecting—individuals to the rapidly evolving education system and labor market.

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