Landscape Analysis of Emergency Aid Programs

By Betsy Prueter

A recent report from Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education (NASPA) reviewed how institutions are designing emergency aid programs, how institutions are using emergency aid to help meet student needs, how many students are served by these types of programs, and what impact this type of aid has on student completion.  The authors found that while students may be able to plan for certain college costs (tuition, fees, housing, books) unforeseen expenses connected to a financial emergency can arise and sometimes lead to students taking breaks or fully withdrawing from their institution. Unfortunately, the federal parameters of emergency aid programs are not always clear and institutions lack clear guidance on how aid should be distributed and what constitutes an “emergency.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • Nearly 40% of colleges responding to the survey reported that limits on federal aid prevent them from giving students more emergency money. For example, students whose aid packages already amount to their total cost of attendance are unable to accept emergency aid despite the fact that students with these types of aid packages are more likely to experience unexpected financial hardships and challenges.
  • There are six types of emergency aid available to students: campus vouchers (used to cover materials from the bookstore or meals from the dining hall); completion scholarships (used to cover outstanding balances for students poised to graduate or continue to the next semester); emergency loans (used to address hardships related to the timing of a student’s financial aid disbursement); food pantries (used to address food insecurity on campus); restricted grants (used to support students who experience unexpected hardship and typically require certain academic or other requirements); and, unrestricted grants (used to support students who experience unexpected hardship, typically awarded without restrictions or academic requirements).
  • A majority (74%) of institutions responding to NASPA’s survey offered some kind of emergency aid, and more than half (64%) had been offering emergency aid for at least five years.
    • While there is a balanced mix of emergency aid being offered at public, private, 2-year and 4-year institutions, the report suggests that public 2-year and public 4-year institutions have a higher prevalence of food insecurity among students.
  • Word of mouth was the most common way students learn about available emergency aid, followed by email and the school’s website.
    • For example, 34% of students reported that they learned about food pantries by word of mouth (e.g. from other students).
  • Institutions agreed that relying so heavily on word of mouth requires students to pro-actively ask about emergency aid options, creating barriers to access. Still, institutions were wary of increasing the marketing of these programs for fear of creating further demand which could not be accommodated.
    • Only 7% of institutions reported that they had met all requested emergency needs.
  • It is worth nothing that no more than 2% of institutions reported alumni giving as the primary funding source for emergency aid, suggesting a potential opportunity to increase funds for students.
    • Only 1% of campus vouchers and unrestricted grants were funded by alumni and no alumni funding was reported as having gone towards food pantries and restricted grants.