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Three Ways to Maximize Your Support for Adult Learners With Relief Act Funds

The federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic has come in three main pieces of legislation. Here are a few ways that postsecondary institutions might leverage the new federal relief funding to help their adult learners: 

  • Tell your adult learners about how to apply for broadband discounts.
  • Provide emergency aid to adult learners regardless of Title IV or immigration status.
  • Use Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) funds creatively for adult student retention and reengagement.

Broadband Help for Lower-Income Households

The December 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act established a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund to help Americans afford internet service during the pandemic. The FCC recently adopted rules around the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. Eligible low-income households may receive a discount off the cost of broadband service and some connected devices. As of May 12, 2021, the EBB Program officially launched, and now consumers can start applying for the programs. Details about eligibility and benefits are available at GetEmergencyBroadband.org.

If your adult learners qualify, they should apply soon because the program will end when the fund runs out of money — or six months after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the COVID-19 health emergency, whichever is sooner.

Provide Emergency Aid to Any Student in Need — Not Just Those Who Are “Title IV” Eligible”

New guidance from the U.S. Department of Education clarifies that the emergency relief funding for students in the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) can go to any and all students with exceptional need, regardless of whether or not they have filled out the FAFSA. The guidance also makes clear that this aid is available to students regardless of immigration status. 

In its explanation, the Department notes, “The novel coronavirus does not choose to limit its effects based upon whether a student qualifies for Title IV aid. Instead, it has disproportionately brought devastation to individuals who were already in the most precarious places in American society, particularly low-income students and families, students and families of color across the country. Adopting a broad and simple definition of a “student” allows the emergency grant funds for students to maximize their purpose and fully live up to Congressional intent” (pp. 19-20). 

In a subsequent FAQ document from May 2021, the Department notes that institutions are free to allocate the emergency aid to any student with “exceptional need,” with examples including students who have faced “the loss of employment (either for themselves or their families), reduced income, or food or housing insecurity” (p. 7). 

This new guidance could be beneficial for many adult learners who may not be Title IV-eligible but nevertheless have faced exceptional financial need during the pandemic. Adult-serving institutions should investigate whether their current processes for awarding emergency aid are inclusive of all adult learners in need. Of particular importance is helping student parents (most of whom are women) who have had to juggle responsibilities even more than usual from disruptions to both childcare and elementary education during this pandemic.  

Use HEERF Funds for Adult-Focused Strategies 

The institutional portion of the HEERF funds is also restricted in its potential uses. Institutions are required to use some of the funds for monitoring and suppressing the coronavirus, and they are to use some of the funds to conduct direct outreach to financial aid applicants about the opportunity to receive a financial aid adjustment due to a change in employment or other circumstances. Other allowable uses include:
  • Defraying expenses associated with coronavirus (including lost revenue, reimbursement for expenses already incurred, technology costs associated with a transition to distance education, faculty and staff trainings, and payroll); and
  • Making additional emergency financial aid grants to students.

The Department has provided additional examples of allowable expenses that could help adult learners through retention and reengagement, such as:

  • Forgiving unpaid student balances that prevent releasing transcripts or that block enrollment (this would count under “lost revenue” to the institution) (FAQ, pp. 14-15).
  • Supporting academic or mental health systems that “will help students to overcome additional barriers that have arisen as a result of coronavirus that may otherwise prevent them from completing their education” (FAQ, p. 16).

Institutions cannot use the HEERF funds for marketing or recruitment, executive salaries, capital outlays, contractors providing re-enrollment activities, religious activities, or construction/purchase of real property. But there is a real opportunity to think creatively about how to support the retention and re-engagement of adult learners who have experienced barriers from this pandemic — the options could include things like bridge programs, tutoring, laptops, and advising. 

Consider what you have heard from your adult learners about their challenges this past year — and take advantage of these relief funds to respond and support them. 


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If your institution or organization is seeking guidance, solutions, or support from CAEL, or if you have an idea for a future collaboration initiative with us, please reach out. We'd love to connect.

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