Where’s Emergency Aid for Students Going?

The federal government just sent $6 billion in emergency aid to colleges for their students. What will it accomplish? Who exactly will it help? And how?

A lot of that is left up to the colleges so, from a broad, national perspective, those questions of impact could be hard to measure. How the different institutions use the money, though, will say something about their priorities, and it also serves as a reminder of the very different mix of students different places serve.

Here are some of the basic parameters policy analysts and college lobbyists said they’ve received from the government:

  • The money needs to cover expenses related to the disruption of campus operations from the coronavirus.
  • The priority should go to students with the greatest financial need, but maximum awards should be set so the aid is distributed widely.
  • Colleges, which have a year to give out the money, should consider distributing the aid over time, taking into account students who will be affected in the weeks and months to come.

But that leaves a lot of questions, a lot open to interpretation, a lot ill-defined. Can colleges reimburse themselves for things they’ve already paid for, such as flights to help students get home? (Maybe?) Can undocumented students benefit? (Unclear.) What constitutes an “emergency?“ (Lots of things.)

Many Kinds of Emergencies

Amelia Parnell, vice president for research and policy at NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, fielded that question about the definition of an emergency on an Inside Higher Ed podcast this week. There’s no clear one, she said, but if a student is facing a circumstance that is significantly impeding their ability to persist in their studies, it’s worth a conversation. Those situations could include lack of food, housing, or stable internet access.

Unemployment is another circumstance that David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges, would add. A lot of students at two-year colleges work in service industries and have lost their jobs in recent weeks, he said on that same Inside Higher Ed podcast.

Here are other ways colleges are defining emergencies and say they plan to use the money:

  • Miami Dade College: Plans to add scholarships for summer and fall terms and to create “incentive programs for short-term workforce certificates that will prepare our students to get to work as quickly as possible once our state re-opens for work.”
  • California State University, Northridge: Considering giving aid to help students with a wide range of things: cost of attendance, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, loan fees, dependent care, technology, costs related to a disability, medical/dental bills, and costs for eligible study-abroad programs. The university plans to focus on getting money to students with the most need, especially the 21,000 students who receive Pell Grants or Cal Grants.
  • Wayne State University: Plans to sort students into tiers of need and then allocate money based on those. It will focus on helping students struggling with housing or food insecurity and plans to ask students to report new expenses, like child care, and lost income, through reduced work hours or the elimination of a job.

Every Student Has Need Now

This $6 billion pot of money feels, simultaneously, like a huge amount of federal spending and also nowhere near what is needed to help all of the students who are now suddenly in crisis.

Distributing the aid, and putting limits on the award amounts, will be difficult, says Dawn Medley, associate vice president for enrollment management at Wayne State University, where about half of each incoming class are eligible for Pell Grants.

“I would be hard pressed at this point in time to say that every student doesn’t have some sort of need or doesn’t feel they have some sort of need.”

Sara Hebel and Andrea Klick

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Counseling, at a Distance

Colleges have focused more on improving student mental health in recent years. They’ve expanded services, added more counselors, and talked more than ever about well-being. But at a time when students’ lives have been upended, their new counselors and support systems are miles away.

That means there are thousands of people like Beth Meier, who’s now working 12 hours a day calling students for telecounseling sessions, planning new wellness programs, and meeting with staff about improvements if telecounseling continues into the fall. On Fridays, she gives herself a break. Then she works through the weekend.

Meier directs the counseling center at Meredith College, a small women’s liberal-arts college in North Carolina. Meredith and other colleges across the country have faced several challenges:

  • Finding HIPAA-compliant platforms for telecounseling
  • Helping students across state lines where campus counselors usually aren’t certified to practice
  • Translating group sessions and other wellness-related events to digital meetings

Silver lining: Meier worried students wouldn’t respond well to telecounseling, but many feel more comfortable sharing over the phone. She might even continue some of the services when face-to-face learning resumes.

What counselors hear: Anxiety and depression about missing campus traditions, trying to finish classes remotely, and going home to sometimes unsafe environments. But these are mostly students that already had counselors; so far Meier hasn’t seen many new ones sign up for counseling sessions.

Promoting services: At small schools like Meredith, faculty and friends usually ask the counseling center to check on students when something seems wrong. Without face-to-face learning, Meier is posting about telecounseling and online services on social media and asking faculty and student leaders to spread the word.

“We are concerned about, really wanting to make sure, especially as … people’s resilience starts to run low, finding new ways to be able to reach them.”

— Andrea Klick

How Advising Has Changed

With so much uncertainty about what the fall will be like on campuses, and with so much upheaval in families’ lives, college counselors are shifting how they advise high-school students.

Jason Gonzales, who works with us as Chalkbeat Colorado’s higher-ed reporter, talked with counselors there about what those conversations are like now — and how they’re suddenly different.

Who’s in the conversation is changing. Nathan Cadena, Denver Scholarship Foundation’s chief operating officer, said he sees this advantage to the current situation: counselors have more access to parents.

“We kind of have an opportunity with an audience that we know is home,” he told Jason. “We are reinforcing messages to parents so they can participate in the decision-making process.”

The work right now involves a lot of listening, Cadena says. He delivers this bottom-line advice: Move forward. Have something to look forward to.

For some counselors, the goal is to make sure students go to college eventually. It’s OK if they decide to hold off for right now, Shaleena Gaskin, STRIVE Prep’s senior director of college access, said. To try to make sure a break from school doesn’t become permanent, she’s focusing on keeping students connected, putting them in touch with college resources and with alumni.

The Latest from the States

Texas State Capitol (Photo: David Hertle on Unsplash)

Public higher education is bracing for steep cuts in states across the country as governors and lawmakers, facing grim revenue projections, get ready to revisit their budgets. We’re keeping tabs on the latest developments here.

Among the recent updates:

  • Nevada’s higher ed system proposed $125 million in budget cuts over two years after the governor warned of steep revenue drops. The plan, which outlines options for different budget scenarios, includes furloughs, a hiring freeze, and temporary student surcharges.
  • The University of Wisconsin System forecasts a $170 million loss in revenues for the spring semester alone. “Part of what makes this so unprecedented is it is cutting across everything that universities do,” one official said.
  • This story from Tuscaloosa reminds us of the big role universities play in their local economies, and how the disruptions in the academic year are themselves further marring the budget picture. With the University of Alabama closed, and its 38,000 students gone, the city says it is predicting monthly losses of about $1.8 million in sales and tax revenues.

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Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus