CARES Act Emergency Aid: An Opportunity for Colleges to Address Long-Standing Inequities

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has shifted and strained the way students, families, and communities live. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act offers emergency aid that can help lessen the financial pressure that students are facing during this historic crisis. Of the more than $12 billion in funding that will flow to colleges, at least $6.25 billion is designated to help students meet their basic needs such as food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and child care. Each college will determine how to distribute that funding to their students.

While this funding will provide some needed relief for students’ financial concerns, unmet financial need is a long-standing problem that predates COVID-19. For students of color—particularly Black students—who are more likely to face loss of employment, ill health effects, and even death as a result of the virus, the consequences of COVID-19 compound their pre-existing financial need.

The virus’s effects have shown, even more plainly, the economic inequities for people from different races/ethnicities and with different financial circumstances. As a result, this emergency aid should be viewed as an opportunity for colleges to learn more about inequities within their student population and use these resources to address them. Colleges should use this aid strategically to address the immediate needs and diminish larger social inequalities that their students face. Going through this process will enhance the institution’s long-term ability to understand all their students’ needs, concerns, and circumstances – all critical elements to improving student success.

As they develop their plans for this aid, colleges should ask a variety of questions. For instance, are there gaps in student success or persistence between groups where lack of adequate financial resources may be a factor? Does the college have equity goals or an equity plan, and how could the aid align with them? Are there student committees or representatives that could provide a valuable perspective? What challenges do Pell-eligible students or those with zero expected family contribution have at your college and how might their circumstances have changed amid the current crisis? How is your college serving students who already had documented food or housing insecurities or were unaccompanied youth? These questions presume that schools possess the data to investigate these challenges; if the school does not, what data should be collected going forward and how will the school collect it?

In the absence of data that would allow colleges to intentionally create an equitable program design, they should at least try to minimize harm to students with pre-existing financial need. The CARES Act gives colleges great flexibility in defining how the aid is distributed and whether or how students must apply for it. In order to support widespread eligibility and access among students with need, colleges should, for instance, be careful not to exclude students who are attending less than full time, are returning adults, or place too much consideration on whether they are eligible for financial aid. In addition, requiring students to enumerate the expense(s) for which they’ll use the aid demonstrates inherent distrust and places judgment on what’s a “legitimate” use for the money.

Based on a recent survey of the COVID-related financial pressures they face, most students identified 2-3 needs, with more than half focused on food and shelter. In addition, many students were dealing with job loss on top of school-related expenses like technology and tuition. Requiring students to account for how they will spend the aid is an unnecessary administrative barrier between the student and the funds.

If a college decides that students must apply for the aid, they must invest in extensive, proactive outreach to ensure that all students who may be interested are aware of the funds and how to access them. Without thorough outreach, not all students will know about these resources—and this can lead to inequitable access to the funds. For instance, students who don’t have a stable physical address or technological connection will be most likely to miss out on the opportunity to apply. Because this aid will not be enough to address all students’ financial needs, colleges should also promote information about other resources like food assistance, unemployment insurance, and local community-based organizations that can continue to meet the needs of students and families in these uncertain times.

In determining how they distribute the CARES Act emergency aid, colleges should heavily weigh the immediate and long-standing student inequities on their campuses. By seizing this opportunity, they are positioning their institutions to help all their students – particularly those from communities of color – to succeed.