HEERF Spending Analysis Shows Critical Role of Emergency Funds for Postsecondary Success

By: Nasser Paydar, Assistant Secretary, Office of Postsecondary Education

As part of the COVID-19 emergency funds that went to higher education institutions, funded through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), institutions are required to file annual reports about how the funds were utilized and their impact. Today, we released the data from the 2022 reporting. While the report makes clear the positive impact these funds – including the $40 billion from the American Rescue Plan – had to help schools during the pandemic, what it also shows us is how beneficial flexible, student-directed, emergency funds can be for postsecondary success, especially for underserved students.

In 2022, seven million college students received a total of $7.9 billion in Emergency Financial Aid Grants. This is on top of the 12.7 million college students who received a total of $19.5 billion in those grants in 2021. What did those funds get spent on? Students spent it on tuition, textbooks, room and board, and to pay for wrap-around expenses that were critical to enabling them to stay in school. That included housing, child care, transportation, food and health care. And, given the increased need for mental health services since the start of the pandemic, not surprisingly, mental health care was one critical area where these funds provided needed support.

Institutions recognized the critical need for funding for those basic needs supports as well. When institutions were calculating amounts of aid, a third of institutions stated that they prioritized needs related to food or housing to determine the amount of the student’s award, and more than a quarter of the schools stated that they prioritized needs related to child care or transportation to make that determination. Furthermore, looking at who the greatest recipients were of those emergency funds, it was students with the greatest needs. The majority of emergency aid went to Pell Grant recipients (63 percent) and to students of color (62 percent).

As the Biden-Harris Administration works to ensure postsecondary success and completion, it must not be overlooked that more than 90 percent of institutions reported that HEERF enabled them to keep students who were at risk of dropping out stay enrolled. And, if you look at our most under-resourced institutions – Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Community Colleges and Universities (TCCUs), and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) – that number increases to 95 percent.

While the pandemic is over, we cannot ignore what we learned – the importance of emergency funds to serve the basic needs of students in order to ensure they can be successful, graduate and enter the workforce – and we must remain steadfast in our commitment to our students. We were pleased to see that the FY24 budget includes $10 million for basic needs grants so that institutions can support college and graduate students by providing funds for housing, food, transportation, and access to health care services. 

The Biden-Harris Administration continues to recognize the importance of these funds as well.   That is why the President’s FY25 Budget includes $80 million for the Child Care Access Means Parents in Schools Program (CCAMPIS), to help ensure student parents have access to high quality, affordable child care; $12 million for the Open Textbooks Pilot to reduce textbook costs for students; and $25 million for a new Comprehensive Postsecondary Student Supports Program to help ensure that students don’t drop out because they can’t get to campus, they don’t have someone to watch their child while they are in class, or they don’t have access to food, housing or mental health supports. This program would build on the funding and supports the Department of Education has provided thus far to ensure that America’s colleges and universities raise the bar by supporting inclusive student success, increasing completion rates, and living up to higher education’s promise of upward mobility. Everyone should be able to attend college and we have a responsibility to make sure that all students have what they need to be able to do so successfully.