In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic overtook American life and stay-at-home orders were announced from coast to coast, virtually all college campuses abruptly shifted to online learning. Recognizing the vital importance of supporting the nation’s displaced college students, Congress delivered $6.25 billion in emergency financial aid grants through the CARES Act, signed into law on March 27. These grants have helped students gain access to broadband internet, laptops, and basic necessities such as groceries and health care.
Eight months later, students continue to see their lives and their learning disrupted, particularly when their campuses must abruptly close to mitigate spread of the coronavirus. According to the best available data, roughly two-thirds of institutions have reopened with at least some in-person learning in the fall semester. New daily COVID-19 cases in the United States now exceed a staggering 150,000, and more than 320,000 cases have been recorded at the nation’s college campuses. Scores of campuses, including many of the nation’s largest, have had to reverse their fall reopening plans. Though many colleges are completing the fall semester remotely after Thanksgiving, there remains significant potential for a volatile winter and spring, as new infections continue to disrupt campus operations and force shifts to online learning. These challenges layer on top of the broader economic crises facing many students and families.
New data released by the Department of Education show that this transition back to remote learning is occurring just as the CARES Act emergency aid funding has been nearly exhausted: only 13 percent of CARES Act emergency grant funding remains to support students through a winter and spring of disruptions and displacement. As Congressional leaders negotiate a fiscal stimulus and an appropriations bill, they should include a new tranche of financial aid to support America’s college students. This funding would equip institutions to make the best possible decisions for the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff, while ensuring students can succeed in their learning.
A Valuable—But Finite—Source of Support
Congress designed the CARES Act’s $30.75 billion Education Stabilization Fund to “ensure America’s learners are still able to operate remotely and can continue to develop to their full potential, regardless of their learning location.” When earmarking $6.25 billion for emergency grants for college students, Congress gave colleges wide discretion about how to distribute the funds, the only stipulation being that the grants must remit expenses related to the pandemic’s disruption of campus operations.
Not knowing how the pandemic would unfold, Congress did not state that this money was intended only for students enrolled in the spring, nor did it state that institutions must make the funding last through the fall (or longer). The Department of Education established that institutions would have one year to expend the money, setting a deadline of late spring 2021, but also emphasized in a letter to institutions the importance of “[getting] money in the hands of students in need as quickly as possible.” (This message was undercut, however, by the department subsequently placing restrictions on student eligibility midway through the disbursement process.)
Facing this ambiguity—but also seeing students’ urgent need for support—many campuses delivered the entirety of their emergency grant funding shortly after receiving it, making automatic disbursements to eligible students. Others established application processes, or a hybrid approach of applications and automatic disbursements; these campuses delivered most of their funds to students in the spring and summer months. Some campuses reserved some funding for the 2020–21 academic year from the outset, but they are small in number. At many campuses, new students who were not enrolled in the spring never had a chance to obtain these funds, either due to the timing of disbursement or specific eligibility rules set by the campus.
According to a new data tool launched by the Department of Education to track how much of the CARES Act allocations for education have been spent, only 13 percent of funds, or about $813 million, remains to help students weather new and continuing disruptions to their education. How much is $813 million on a per-student basis? Data from the National Student Clearinghouse tells us that enrollment is down about 3.3 percent compared to the previous fall, but there remain roughly 14.4 million students enrolled in fall 2020 whose learning may have been disrupted due to the closures of campus operations. According to those figures, the CARES Act aid that remains available to this population amounts to $57 per student, not nearly enough to tangibly impact whether a student can succeed and continue learning amid displacement. The actual amount is likely lower than $57, because institutions report their data at set intervals, and more aid no doubt has been distributed since the most recent reporting.
According to those figures, the CARES Act aid that remains available to this population amounts to $57 per student, not nearly enough to tangibly impact whether a student can succeed and continue learning amid displacement.
In the remainder of the 2020–21 academic year, a student’s education could be disrupted, directly or indirectly by the pandemic, in any number of ways. Their campus could abruptly shift to remote learning, necessitating home internet and computer access: this month, for example, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services prohibited in-person classes and other events at colleges for three weeks, one of potentially numerous states to do so as cases surge nationwide. Even while in-person classes are being held, individual students must often enter quarantine after exposure to an infected individual, cutting them off from campus resources such as dining halls and computer labs, and potentially resulting in lost income for students working hourly jobs. This is not to mention the costs of health insurance coverage and health care students need, particularly for the hundreds of thousands of students infected by COVID-19. Beyond physical displacement, there remain many ways students can have their ability to succeed in college affected: job loss and reduced personal or familial income, greater family obligations, mental health needs, issues of transportation access, child care, housing insecurity, food insecurity, and more.
The CARES Act played a vital role in helping students persist in their education amid these disruptions. Now, new financial aid is needed to help ensure that a student’s ability to succeed during the pandemic and the resulting recession is not simply a function of their financial means. Congress is best equipped to provide this aid to students: state revenue has plummeted during the recession, and colleges and universities are facing severe shocks to their balance sheets. To ensure that students do not see their tuition rise or the quality of their education fall, this aid for students should be one piece of a broader package of support for state higher education that helps states maintain pre-pandemic levels of funding. It could come in the form of higher education support to states, with provisions to ensure support for financial aid; by broadly expanding existing financial aid programs; or through the emergency grant provisions created by the CARES Act.
As federal leaders negotiate a new fiscal stimulus and appropriations bill, they should prioritize additional financial aid for college students, which would help ensure that the immense investments that students and their families have already placed in their education will withstand the economic and educational disruptions they will surely face in the coming months and perhaps even years.