Colleges Use CARES Act for Student Emergency Aid

Many community college students are facing tremendous hardships in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite confusing federal guidance, colleges are using CARES Act funds to provide students with emergency aid.

Many community college students are facing tremendous hardships in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Following abrupt school closures in the spring, students needed to quickly adjust to colleges’ shifts to virtual learning and support services. Many students are facing economic challenges as they have been laid-off from jobs or needed to support out-of-work family members. Students who have been most impacted by the pandemic include student parents, balancing academic, work, and family responsibilities; those without reliable internet access and technology necessary to access virtual courses; and Black and brown individuals who are part of a national community more likely to become sick from the disease and be laid off from their jobs.

Disbursing Funds

In late March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act which included $6.2 billion for colleges to provide emergency aid to students and $6.2 billion to pay for institutional costs related to the pandemic. This funding was much needed by students and colleges; however, implementation by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has created additional barriers and uncertainty on how to quickly support students most in need and which students are eligible for support. In particular, ED has caused confusion by repeatedly revising guidance and rules for which students are eligible for emergency aid. When ED first announced the availability of student aid funds, the department stated colleges would have significant discretion on how to disburse aid. The only statutory requirement is that students use funds to cover expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus. Two weeks later, ED issued new guidance directing colleges to only provide CARES Act grants to students eligible for Title IV federal financial aid, which blocked colleges from providing aid to many in-need students, including DACA students and veterans. This was further muddied by a subsequent announcement that ED would not enforce the Title IV eligibility requirement. However, as of June 12, ED announced an interim rule which seeks to codify the exclusion of non-Title IV eligible students from receiving CARES Act funds.

A second challenge faced by community colleges is meeting the large amount of student demand for aid. In part, this is because community colleges received a smaller proportion of CARES Act funding relative to their overall enrollments. The student allocation formula grants colleges more money for full-time students than for part-time students. As a result, at many colleges where most students are enrolled part-time, students’ financial needs have surpassed the available funding. Community colleges are advocating for additional funding and a change to the allocation formula to better support their students.

Despite these challenges, community colleges have worked to provide students with emergency aid to meet unexpected educational and living expenses, such as technology, food, and housing. The following describes how three community colleges have responded to students’ needs resulting from the pandemic and how they are using CARES Act funds to provide aid.

Northern Virginia Community College

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) received their CARES Act student allocation of approximately $10 million in early May. The college has used this money, along with funds from their foundation, to support students’ unexpected basic needs and technology expenses. Within the first three days of the coronavirus shutdown, NOVA received over 2,000 applications to their existing emergency grant program. According to Dr. Frances Villagran-Glover, Vice President of Student Services, in order to address the high level of need, the college provided $500 to every eligible applicant. In addition, NOVA loaned laptops to students needing equipment to attend virtual classes and $40 grocery gift cards to students who applied but were not eligible for grant aid.  

By mid-May, NOVA created a specific CARES Act emergency aid application. With the new application, students were asked to certify that aid would be used to pay for expenses such as housing, food, childcare, and course materials. Demand remained high, with the college receiving an additional 3,000 applications on the first day of the new round of grants. For this round, NOVA changed their distribution formula providing $500 grants to part-time students and $700 grants to full-time students. To support students most in need, NOVA has focused on providing resources to student parents who face the challenge of balancing academic, work, and childcare responsibilities. Students who had not previously filed a FAFSA were asked to fill out an attestation form to certify their eligibility. For non-Title IV eligible students, NOVA has worked to re-route their applications through the foundation and other institutional resources, such as Single Stop.

Pima Community College

In mid-March, Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona quickly shifted to virtual learning in response to the coronavirus state of emergency. Before the CARES Act was passed, the college used their existing emergency grant aid program to support students’ immediate needs following the shutdown. By late April, Pima received their CARES Act student allocation of approximately $5 million dollars and began to distribute funds to additional students needing emergency aid to pay for basic needs and educational expenses.

Initially, Pima asked students seeking CARES Act aid to submit a grant application. The college received nearly 900 applications in their first round of assistance. However, Pima recognized that they could more quickly distribute funds by leveraging existing information in their financial aid system, according to Norma Navarro-Castellanos, Executive Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships. As a result, Pima switched to a hybrid model to distribute funds based on a short application supplemented by information from the financial aid system. Prioritizing students with the most need, the college began distributing grants in weekly batches. By mid-April, Pima had provided emergency grants to nearly 6,000 students and had served most of the students eligible. Challenges for Pima included quickly providing aid to students who had not authorized electronic transfer and reaching out to students with incomplete financial aid information on file.

To meet additional demand, Pima is using part of their $5 million institutional CARES Act allocation to purchase laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots for students, and to provide additional grants to encourage credit completion among students with incomplete grades. The college is also focusing on how to provide aid to students who are ineligible for CARES Act grants, particularly students who were enrolled in online courses prior to the pandemic and have suffered economic hardships.

Clark State Community College

Clark State Community College in Springfield, Ohio received approximately $1.5 million for their CARES Act student allocation. Many Clark State students struggled with food and housing insecurity prior to the pandemic. Now, student needs have been exacerbated by increased expenses, job losses, and lack of technological resources. At the beginning of the pandemic, Clark State was able to respond to student needs quickly by leveraging existing emergency aid programs supported by the foundation and Office of Student Supports, including grants, a food pantry, and a clothing closet.

Once Clark State received their CARES Act funds, the college distributed over half of the money within the first month. According to Senior Vice President of Student Success Dr. Theresa Felder and Foundation Director Toni Overholser, the college decided to distribute funds using an application process that would award students up to $750 each based on individual need. Given the college’s relatively small CARES Act allocation, they felt this was the best way to ensure equitable distribution for students most in need, rather than equally dividing the money among all students. Furthermore, prior to establishing the CARES Act application, the college surveyed students to identify the areas of greatest need and made check-in phone calls to all students to identify emergencies and offer assistance.

Students ineligible for CARES Act aid have received financial support from the foundation. As the health and economic crisis continues, Dr. Felder and Ms. Overholser are concerned that the need for emergency stimulus will continue through the summer and fall semesters. In addition to responding to the increased prevalence of food and housing insecurity, the college has also witnessed many students facing mental health issues. To address this need, Clark State is working to connect students to resources through the college or in the community.

Allison Beer is the Senior Policy Analyst at ACCT. She can be reached at 

About ACCT Now

Community College Insights & Perspectives

ACCT Now is the go-to resource for issues affecting community colleges. In addition to reporting and research, you’ll have access to of-the-moment legislative updates. We’ve also included articles, reports, and research from outside sources that benefit the ACCT community.

Washington D.C. skyline