Delivering Emergency Aid During the Pandemic

In February 2020, the novel coronavirus began making its way into the US, creating one of the most dramatic and widespread emergencies of my lifetime. As with every part of our country, higher education was sent into disarray as institutions and systems across the country adapted services and supports nearly overnight.

As an organization focused on addressing basic needs insecurity, we knew that the threat to the students we serve would be even more dire. As needs for housing, transportation, technology, child care, and food changed almost overnight, the impact on those already facing instability in one or more of those areas was devastating.

We soon had proof of this impact. A special administration of the #RealCollege survey found that nearly three in five college students faced challenges in meeting their needs for food, housing, or other basic requirements of daily living during the pandemic, with Black students reporting rates of basic needs insecurity that were 19 percentage points higher than white students. And a report prepared by the U.S. Department of Education in June 2021 found that COVID-19 created new barriers to postsecondary access and success, “with heightened impacts emerging for students of color, students with disabilities, and students who are caregivers.”

How We Responded

Within days, we launched efforts to meet this need. In late March 2020, we created a grassroots fundraising effort with our friends at RISE to meet the initial need, as close to 300 people stepped in to provide just over $30,000 in the first critical month of lockdowns. As Congress and the Department of Education led by Betsy DeVos put forward funding with eligibility requirements that left some of the most vulnerable students behind, we worked with our partners at Edquity, CourseHero, and other corporate and non-profit friends to develop funding that ensured that ALL students were supported to meet basic needs.

And our philanthropy partners stepped up in big ways. The kind of trust-based support that allowed those partners to rapidly deploy funds to areas of greatest need was instrumental for the students we serve, and is a mirror of our approach to distributing emergency aid.

Key Partnerships

Getting the dollars out the door to students as quickly and equitably as possible was paramount, and we worked with key partners to do this work. Since our inception, we have built on the research and best practices around emergency aid to ensure the best possible approach to getting funds to students. Namely, we look for ways to let all students know the funding is available; to reduce the stigma of seeking support; and to make it as simple and quick as possible for students to get the support they need.

Our inaugural program, the FAST Fund, was our starting point. The FAST Fund makes use of an under-utilized group on campus — the faculty — to help them get funds to students and become agents of change on their campus. We knew that this was a model that could have tremendous impact, for the students we serve, the faculty and staff who support them, and their institutions. So we formed a partnership with the American Federation of Teachers, to partner with interested union locals to expand the reach and impact of this innovative approach to student supports.

But we also wanted a way to demonstrate efficient, effective approaches to distributing institution-wide funds, and that emergency funds at scale could have a positive impact on retention and graduation. So we partnered with Edquity, a technology company that developed a platform to help institutions manage emergency aid programs at scale following the same principles we know to be effective at aid contribution. As part of that work, we were able to lead the way on a first-of-its-kind program: emergency aid grants for students who are dual enrolled in both high school and college.

In total, and together with all our funding and delivery partners — we have distributed more than $2 million dollars in emergency aid to students since the start of the pandemic!

What’s Next

Over the last two years, everyone from the federal government to the people of Twitter have stepped forward to meet peoples’ basic needs in unique and powerful ways. We’ve had the chance to see what happens when resources abound and constraints are lifted. We’re trying our best to share what we’ve learned, and we continue to watch eagerly for lessons from across the country. Rather than constantly requiring people to prove that they really are struggling and deserving of support, we continue to believe that a trust-based approach, where we believe students when they tell us what they need, is the path forward.

Unfortunately, nearly half of all students faced basic needs insecurity before the pandemic started, and those needs will continue as things return to normal. Yet, to date, Congress has failed to make additional investments in emergency aid. We will continue to advocate for ongoing federal investment to address the challenges that COVID-19 has laid bare, including by bringing forward the stories of students who share expertise based on their lived experience. And we will continue to bring resources directly to students to meet their basic living expenses, filling a gap that too many students are facing.

No student can do their best in school when they are worried about what they will eat, where they will sleep, or who will care for their children. This is one of the most critical, overlooked, yet solvable components of college success on the map. The work is urgent, and while we’re proud of what we’ve done over the last two years, there is so much more to be done. Follow us on Twitter @BelieveStudents to see where we go next!

Believe in Students is a national non-profit organization focused on helping college students meet their basic living expenses. We do this work by providing resources directly to students to help meet their basic needs, and then by engaging those same students in sharing their stories to help create change. When students tell us what they need — we believe them.

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#RealCollege students, presidents, educators, and more will lend their voices here with support from The Hope Center and Believe in Students.