Biden administration urges colleges to use relief funds for student food, housing

First Lady Jill Biden speaks as she and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visit Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ on Thursday Jan. 20, 2022. Jill Biden Visits Bcc Photo credit Anne-Marie Caruso/NorthJersey.com / USA TODAY NETWORK

With the announcement of $198 million in American Rescue Plan funds for education Thursday, the Biden-Harris administration urged colleges to use the money for student food and housing.

New guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education regarding the use of this Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund allocation aims to provide examples of how to provide “for students’ basic needs, such as student, academic, financial, and mental health support.”

Overall, the American Rescue Plan provided nearly $40 billion for colleges and universities in the form of HEERF funds. Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, the funding “has been a necessary lifeline to aid colleges in meeting urgent public health needs to prevent and respond to the Coronavirus pandemic.”

A recent survey of college presidents conducted by the American Council on Education found that 90 percent of institutions used HEERF to purchase COVID-19 tests, conduct health screening, and meet other urgent health needs.

By providing more resources from the American Rescue Plan, which addresses a wide range of economic issues faced by the nation’s residents, the government hopes to “reduce barriers to success in higher education, particularly those created and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“As I’ve traveled the country and spoken with students at all types of colleges and universities, I’ve heard them share heartbreaking struggles about finding safe and nurturing child care, concerns about not having regular access to nutritious meals, and fears about where they can sleep safely at night,” Cardona said at Bergen Community College in New Jersey on Thursday, according to The Washington Post. “We can’t let basic-needs insecurity stand in the way of our students achieving their American Dream.”

Bergen Community College used pandemic funds for their on-campus Child Development Center tuition, said the Department of Education. The center, established in 1982, educates and cares for about 45 children ages 2 to 5 each semester, according to The Post.

First Lady Jill Biden, who is an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, praised Bergen’s use of the funds.

“You know, it’s hard to express what it’s like to have a bright, engaged student — someone who has so much passion and potential — fade out of my class because they can’t find a babysitter,” Biden said of her own experience. “They start missing lectures … they fall behind and just can’t catch up. It breaks my heart. For parents, especially moms, child care makes graduation possible.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic – the catalyst for the American Rescue Plan – hit, the American Psychological Association reported in 2019 that more than one third of college students in the U.S. did not have enough to eat or stable housing.

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In the nearly two years since the pandemic began, college enrollment in the U.S. has dropped by 1.2 million.

“The pandemic has been dragging on and on and it’s depleting people’s resources,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, who runs the Hope Center, a higher education research and justice organization. “Students who have left and want to come back are saying it’s hard to return because of things like rent. And students who are enrolled right now are saying, ‘I’m going to leave because I don’t have money for rent, I can’t take care of my kids.’”

A Hope Center survey of 38,000 students found that three out of five were experiencing basic needs insecurity and that more Black students were facing needs insecurity.

Other forms of aid that students had access to through the pandemic, such as Child Tax Credits and emergency aid are drying up, according to The Post.

“These announcements will enable all institutions to continue to meet the needs of their students through new and existing HEERF funding and keep students on a pathway to graduation and success in the job market, said the U.S. Department of Education. “For far too many students, the pandemic has meant missing classes, skipped meals, and housing insecurity,” it added.

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