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How Public Universities Distributed Emergency Financial Aid During the Pandemic

By Beverly Steele and Kate Michaels

As part of a March virtual convening on affordability, APLU invited campus leaders and a representative from APLU’s Office of Governmental Affairs to reflect on the 2020 CARES Act, which enabled distribution of federally funded emergency aid, and implications for the future. Moderated by Anne Ollen, Managing Director of the TIAA Institute, the session included three panelists: Lindsey Tepe, Director, Governmental Affairs, APLU; George Yanchak, Director, Moutaineer Hub, West Virginia University (WVU); and Joseph Dablow, Director, Student Success, University of Louisville (UofL). The panelists reflected on the effectiveness of distributing federally funded Student Emergency Grants Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), established and funded through multiple rounds of federal coronavirus relief legislation. Learn more about the HEERF funds. Watch the full session here.

Key Successes
Overall, campus leaders were proud of the work their campuses were able to do in getting the CARES Act funds out directly to students quickly in accordance with constantly changing eligibility directives from the Federal Government. The University of Louisville’s Joseph Dablow noted that by June of 2020, 99% of their funding from the CARES Act had been allocated to approximately 3,500 students at the University of Louisville. Meanwhile, at West Virginia University, 8,000 students in spring received emergency funds, along with an additional 2,000 in the summer semester.

Communication: What Works, What Doesn’t
Panelists noted it can be difficult to find a communication method that works with today’s students. While email and texting are the best methods right now, they are certainly not perfect and campuses struggle with ensuring students see and hear important communications. West Virginia University’s one-stop-shop for students, the Mountaineer Hub, stresses to students the importance of checking messages from the Hub because they represent so many different departments within the university.

Applying Funds to Student Balances
In early rounds, West Virginia University noted that one of their biggest obstacles was finding a way in their financial aid system to get money directly to students. However, with the second round of funding at WVU, eligible students who had a balance on their account were asked if they would like to apply the emergency funding directly to their account. More than 450 students responded that they wanted to apply funds to their account, though not every student used the full amount for their balance. The University of Louisville is still determining whether to collect student authorization to apply the third round of emergency funding to student account charges. Getting funds directly to students remains the highest priority.

Legislative Priorities
APLU has prioritized an initiative in support of doubling the Pell Grant and recently joined nearly 1,200 organizations, including nearly 900 colleges and universities in calling on Congress via letter to double the maximum Pell Grant. That letter is the first step in a broader campaign hoping to push things forward, noting that “emergency aid and HEERF funds are great one-time infusions of dollars, but Pell Grants are here to stay.”

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