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Maximizing Federal Relief for Adult Students

Bolstering broadband access, expanding emergency aid to students regardless of their Title IV status, and focusing on adult student retention and engagement are among the suggested ways postsecondary education institutions can maximize the benefits of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) and other pandemic relief funds for adult learners. Recently, CAEL hosted a webinar to explore in more detail how institutions are getting the most out of such funding opportunities. Mark Huelsman, Ed.M. and policy fellow for the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, joined CAEL’s senior vice president of partnerships, impact and insights, Jack Mills, to present during the webinar. Panelists included:

  • Dr. William J. McKinney, advisor for regional campus affairs at Indiana University;
  • Dr. Richard Oates, vice president of the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus;
  • Dr. Rollinda Thomas, assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs, assessment, and programs at Fayetteville State University; and 
  • Dr. Julie White, president of Pierce College Fort Steilacoom 

Scholar, activist, and author Sara Goldrick-Rab, who also is known to the CAEL community for her keynote speech at the CAEL 2018 annual conference, founded the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University that same year. The Hope Center and its “real college” movement work to paint an authentic picture of student life and the challenges of basic-needs insecurities. 

High-Level Perspectives: The Real College Survey and Principles for Pandemic Relief

The Hope Center conducts an annual survey, the Real College Survey, to assess the urgency of these needs. The 2020 edition of the survey, completed in the fall of 2020, underscored the pandemic’s well-known ability to add an acute edge to chronic problems. During the webinar, Huelsman reviewed the survey’s findings, offering a high-level review of some common challenges students were facing.

He also shared principles the Hope Center has developed around prioritizing pandemic relief. Each of the panelists then offered specific examples of these principles in practice at their institutions as they made effective and strategic use of HEERF funds for adult learners.

Real College Survey respondents hailed from 130 2-year colleges, 72 4-year colleges, and 14 HBCUs from more than 40 states. Huelsman noted that many of those surveyed (more than a third) were over the age of 25, making the results informative not only about basic-needs insecurities but also how they can contextualize the adult learner experience. 

The survey focused on three primary basic-needs insecurities. They are food insecurity, housing insecurity, and homelessness. Nearly three out of five respondents faced at least one basic-needs insecurity. Just under half (48 percent) experienced housing insecurity; 14 percent were homeless. 

Black students were 16 percentage points more likely to face a basic-needs insecurity than White students. A similar gap (15 percentage points) existed between parents and non-parents. Between two- and four-year college students, the gap was eight percentage points. Nearly 40 percent of students at community colleges suffered from food insecurity. 

Among student parents enrolled at community colleges, more than 75 percent experienced a basic-needs insecurity. Although the problem was less pronounced at four-year institutions, a majority (58 percent) of student parents were still affected. Citing the K-20 move to online learning, Hueslman explained that even as student parents must contend with their own coursework and unmet needs, they often are further burdened with child-care challenges.

Unsurprisingly, recipients responded favorably to emergency aid, whatever its source. Seventy-six percent of survey respondents reported that emergency aid reduced stress, with seventy percent indicating that it helped them remain enrolled. The broad impact of such aid is amplified, Huelsman said, by expanding eligibility rubrics. “Undocumented students and DACA recipients now can receive federal relief funding through HEERF,” he said, adding that the funds are also applicable to those unable to complete a FAFSA, dually enrolled students, non-degree seeking, non-credit, and continuing education students, and even students who have left school for any reason since March 13, 2020.

Huelsman shared a set of principles the Hope Center has compiled to guide the best use of HEERF funds “in terms of prioritizing and reaching students.” They emphasize that HEERF aid is not traditional aid, meaning it is not constrained by the usual Title IV restrictions. That gives students a great deal of discretion in how they dispose of the funds, something that he says is important for students facing basic-needs insecurities and the cost of remediating them. 

The Hope Center also urges colleges and universities to use HEERF funds to reengage students by addressing those basic needs, regardless of whether they are considered part of the formal cost of institutional attendance. This could include “unexpected expenses such as loss of employment, either for themselves or their families, reduced income, or food and housing insecurity.” 

The principles also advocate for the cancellation of student debt, whether from tuition, fees, or other expenses, as it can prevent transfer, re-enrollment, and, ultimately, graduation. 

Finally, the principles stress that HEERF funds should be incorporated holistically and within the framework of regular, comprehensive support that integrates non-HEERF benefits when possible. For example, Huelsman noted the expansion of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) eligibility. All students with no expected family contribution reported on their FASFA forms and all students eligible for work study can receive SNAP benefits. That large population of students creates an opportunity for institutions to work across departments to engage students around complementing HEERF with non-HEERF benefits, said Huelsman.

Putting Principles Into Practice: Panelist Experiences Deploying Relief Funds

Each of the panelists reported that their institution had offered or were reviewing some form of debt cancellation. Fayetteville State University (FSU), an HBCU where adult learners are a majority, used HEERF funds to vacate the debt of any students enrolled during the pandemic, said Dr. Thomas. The university identified 1,442 students with account balances and applied $1.65 million in HEERF funds to pay them off. It also emailed each Pell-eligible student an application to expedite their receipt of HEERF funds. 

Pierce College Fort Steilacoom, which saw pandemic-related enrollment declines in students of color and those over the age of 40 of 30 and 37 percent, respectively, has distributed $2,000 each to Pell-eligible students, a total of $7 million, said Dr. White. The college has been applying HEERF funds toward student loan forgiveness since March of 2020.

Dr. McKinney, who oversees collaboration among Indiana University’s (IU) five regional campuses, said direct aid and forgiveness of past-due balances have made a big impact on students, explaining that unexpected expenses or outstanding debt can often stand in the way of re-enrollment. 

Technology was another recurring theme among the panelists. IU invested in infrastructure to help maintain continuity for students, including mobile hotspots and laptop loans. Pierce College Fort Steilacoom also deployed HEERF funds toward technology accessories like laptops. The college, which serves many students who live in rural areas, added Wi-FI hotspots in campus parking lots. It also is purchasing Amazon-style lockers to provide 24-7 access to technology resources, textbook loans, and other assistance. To complement hardware improvements, Dr. White said the college is also investing in an academy to sustain an inclusive pedagogy framework for faculty that focuses on the needs of marginalized students across all modes of learning.

Dr. Oates shared an example of how the University of North Georgia Gainesville campus used a technology improvement to address the familiar challenge of child care. Looking to increase flexibility while accommodating preferences for real-time engagement, the college used HEERF funds to enhance IT infrastructure so that all campus classrooms could offer synchronous learning opportunities, a benefit to students who have to remain home to care for children. In fact, the sudden shift to online learning earlier in the pandemic had spurred a significant uptick in hardship withdrawals, Dr. Oates said. So the college has also used HEERF funds to hire full-time caseworkers to re-recruit withdrawn students and make them aware of new resources available to them. 

FSU has also added staff, nearly doubling its number of advisors, said Dr. Thomas. In the fall, the university plans to open a one-stop student services center to provide convenient access to common services that strengthen students’ ability to navigate their university experience. 

Child care has been an important issue at FSU as well. According to Dr. Thomas, 70 percent of the university’s adult learners have a child in the home. The university has a five-star daycare center on campus, but the waiting list can be lengthy. Dr. Thomas said the university is exploring options beyond HEERF funding to address this, including partnerships with community organizations to supplement costs as it works to expand on-campus child-care resources.

Dr. Thomas said the university also is considering collaboration, with local businesses, for developing shorter-term credentials that can increase workforce skills and student competitiveness for jobs. It also is reviewing credit for prior learning (CPL) policies to facilitate assessment and transfer of appropriate skills for academic credit. 

Another potential partnership would add a qualitative layer to the familiar quantitative problem of food insecurity. Dr. Thomas said around 40 percent of FSU’s adult learners experience food insecurity, so the university has used HEERF funds to help supplement meal plans. But with so many adult learners working or using online programs, the university added a grab-and-go option to the meal plan that students could pick up during brief stops at the campus. Knowing that such meals often rely heavily on processed foods, the university has consulted with Dr. Alice Ammerman of the UNC Gillings School of Public Health as FSU considers additional funding options that could add healthier subsidized meal options.

Meals, along with books for at least two classes, tuition, and housing, were also covered by HEERF funds in an FSU summer school program aimed at supporting persistence and completion. It was open to students in good standing who had not completed enough credit hours within the academic year to advance. The results indicate it was a resounding success. Dr. Thomas reported that nearly 90 percent of participants achieved a positive result, meaning they had earned additional credits toward a degree without taking on debt. Of them, at least a third earned enough credits to advance a level in classification.

As several webinar participants observed, the pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated challenges that were already underway. As its effects impact a third academic year, the challenges, strategies, and solutions discussed during this webinar are likely to remain top of mind regardless of what direction the pandemic next takes. You can listen to a recording of the webinar here

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