This week, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden announced the provision of an additional $198 million in American Rescue Plan funds to help institutions keep students on a pathway to graduation and success in the job market. This is a welcome sign of support for community colleges and minority-serving institutions that have been working hard to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on students already struggling with food and housing insecurity and other barriers to their success.
We know that the indirect costs of college — food, housing, childcare, healthcare, and transportation — can amount to 60–80 percent of the total cost of higher education. Achieving the Dream (ATD) has long recognized that community colleges must advance change that addresses barriers to equitable social and economic mobility — within our institutions and across our communities. ATD Network colleges have been leaders in driving this change and have developed and expanded holistic student supports that are central to our work and key to advancing educational equity.
The administration’s announcement was made at Bergen County Community College, an ATD Network institution since 2015 which has used Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEERF) funds to support its students’ basic needs, including providing access to on-campus childcare for student parents, discharging unpaid student balances so students can remain enrolled, and bolstering mental health counseling programs.
The U.S. Department of Education has published new guidance for institutions seeking to provide students with basic needs supports. It provides examples that overlap with our own work at ATD: The Department cites Leader College of Distinction Amarillo College’s use of HEERF grant funds to expand the reach of its Advocacy and Resource Center, which connects students to services and resources that can assist them when they encounter life barriers that may impede their success. The guidance also illustrates how HEERF grant funds can be used to establish or expand Open Educational Resources (OER) — a strategy ATD Network colleges are using to reduce financial barriers, enable all students to have course material on day one of classes, and create more culturally relevant learning experiences. Importantly, the funding can be used to support students who are parents by building partnerships with nonprofit service providers, connecting eligible students to federal benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or helping eligible non-tax filers apply for refundable tax credits such as the Child Tax Credit, Recovery Rebate Credits, or Earned Income Tax Credit.
The Department announced that it will invite applications starting next week to support colleges and universities with the greatest unmet needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In awarding funds, the Department will prioritize community colleges and rural institutions of higher education (IHEs) that serve a high percentage of low-income students and have experienced enrollment declines since the start of the pandemic. Funds will be awarded in late spring.
An early signal of how the new funding can quickly impact our students and communities came with the companion announcement of grants to six colleges including Passaic County Community College (a Leader College of Distinction) and Montgomery College to develop new initiatives to address students’ basic needs. ATD looks forward to the deepened student success work that the new HEERF grants will facilitate at many more community colleges as these institutions work to develop as equitable hubs of growth and opportunity in the communities they serve.