March 13, 2023
In March 2020, I was a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Virginia. By then, I had settled into a routine of balancing multiple work-study jobs alongside my personal and academic obligations. As a first-generation, low-income student, I relied heavily on those work study jobs to pay for my living expenses. But everything changed that month, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused a global lockdown.
I, like so many other students, saw my daily living expenses pile up even as the streams of income I had relied on dried up. Luckily, the federal government came to the rescue, by allocating tens of billions of dollars in emergency funds to colleges, a substantial portion of which was to be distributed as grants to students. My university distributed the grants to affected students, bypassing the regular application process. These direct financial aid grants allowed me to support myself as well as my family during an intensified period of economic hardship.
In addition to providing emergency aid to colleges, Congress broadened eligibility requirements for public benefit programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and created new ones, such as the Emergency Broadband Benefits Program (now the Affordable Connectivity Program). I applied for help from those programs as well. Students, however, are generally left on their own to learn about and apply for these benefits, so many who are eligible for these programs are unaware of them and never apply.
The direct aid I received from my university’s emergency funding, as well as the benefits, I received, have been instrumental in allowing me to continue my education during crisis, and I will be graduating in May with a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. Unfortunately, the government’s emergency funding to colleges ends this year. As a result, it is critical for colleges to help first-generation, low-income students apply for public benefit programs. As my experience shows, the easier it is for us to access the financial aid and benefits we need, the more likely we are to persevere.
First-Generation, Low-Income Students
Today, approximately 43.4 percent of first-time, beginning students come from parents who have not earned a bachelor’s degree. However, first-generation students comprise only 34.4 percent of graduating students. First-generation students are also more likely to come from lower-income backgrounds and are twice as likely to leave school within three years without completing a postsecondary degree compared to their continuing-generation peers. This is a result of the unique social, academic, and financial barriers that many first-generation, low-income students face. According to the Department of Education (ED), these inequities are particularly pronounced for the 41 percent of Black and 61 percent of Latinx undergraduates who are the first in their families to go to college.
Equitable access to higher education is a long-standing issue for first-generation, low-income students who often have to balance additional responsibilities and family obligations in addition to school, and when the pandemic hit, these differences were placed under a national spotlight as school closures revealed what we already knew–first-generation, low-income students returned to a different reality than their peers. Existing challenges in housing instability and food insecurity were compounded and underscored the pressing need for colleges and universities to support their most disadvantaged students during and after this historic crisis.
In response to urgent student needs, the federal government developed emergency relief and directed tens of billions of dollars to programs that supported college students and widened eligibility for benefits programs like SNAP. Most notably, Congress in March 2020 approved the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was the largest economic stimulus package in U.S. history. Through this bill, more than $14 billion went to higher education institutions as Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF), of which, $6 billion was designated as emergency financial assistance to eligible students for basic needs such as food, housing, technology, and healthcare. Following additional rounds of HEERF funding in December 2020 and March 2021, the federal government has distributed over $77 billion in emergency aid through this program.
Ultimately, these recent emergency aid efforts underscore a persistent problem in college affordability where students are facing unmet need. The Center for Law and Social Policy reports how nearly three in four students experience unmet need with financial aid calculations, a figure that has likely worsened over the past few years. There has been a persistent gap between rising college costs and students’ financial resources, making higher education increasingly inaccessible and unaffordable for all students, especially first-generation, low-income students.
These basic needs support may provide necessary relief to students’ financial burden but at the same time, a lack of awareness hinders distribution. I received multiple HEERF grants because my university automatically distributed funds based on my financial aid status, but this was not the case for schools with their own distribution method or public benefit programs that require students to navigate eligibility requirements and applications to receive funds. According to a report by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 51 percent of the students who didn’t apply for emergency aid were unaware it was available, 47 percent thought they wouldn’t qualify, and 34 percent said they did not know how to apply for the aid.
I was fortunate to receive direct aid and learned about additional programs like SNAP and the Affordable Connectivity Program through word of mouth but students should not have to rely on the luck of hearing from a friend to get information about critical basic needs support. Many students are unaware of these programs and miss out on these crucial funds that may make the ultimate difference between continued enrollment or dropping out. Initial reports evaluating enrollment estimate that millions of otherwise eligible students are missing out on money that could have helped students afford groceries or reliable internet access.
Although the emergency higher education funds are expiring, colleges can play a key role in addressing inequitable access by ensuring that first-generation, low-income students are aware of existing public benefits programs. Students lack basic information about program availability and eligibility, and colleges and universities are in a unique position to inform and connect students to federal aid programs. In Virginia, lawmakers recently passed legislation requiring public institutions of higher education to prominently advertise SNAP eligibility and the application process on their websites and orientation materials for all students.
While I hope that first-generation, low-income students will receive enough financial aid to cover their needs and not rely on these programs in the future, these needs are immediate and student affairs and financial aid offices can help provide students with the necessary information and support they need to apply for programs. The mere presence of these programs is not enough, and instead, there needs to be a coordinated effort to ensure that the most vulnerable and in-need populations can access timely support. For example, community colleges across Virginia have received a private grant to roll out Single Stop, an online screening tool that connects students to wraparound support services including federal aid programs and community resources.
It cannot be emphasized enough that college students, especially those who are first-generation and low-income, benefit from public benefits programs that alleviate the stresses and anxieties of school, work, and life. The pandemic has shown that while there have been scattered attempts at streamlining the process to receive aid, resources, and programs will be underutilized if students have to needlessly navigate through barriers created by unclear information, changing eligibility requirements, and lengthy application processes.
Policymakers can learn from the successes and challenges of emergency funding and do more to incentivize colleges to play a more substantial role in ensuring that first-generation, low-income students are aware of public benefit programs. Resources and support programs will continue to play a prominent role in the success of college students and increased federal support can place colleges in a better position to support their students.
Three years ago, I couldn’t have imagined graduating college during a pandemic but come May, I’ll be leaving the University of Virginia with my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. I am not the first, first-generation, low-income student to trudge through the higher education system receiving federal aid and public benefits, and I won’t be the last, but I hope that instead of a previous reality where students had to navigate these systems on their own, we can do more to ensure access and continued support for students and communities who need the most care.
Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!