May 15, 2023

New Emergency Grant Aid Legislation Would Help Students in Need Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic

Nancy Conneely, Managing Director of Policy
Policy and Advocacy


In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, Congress sprang into action to help Americans in a variety of ways, from access to testing kits to a moratorium on evictions to loans to keep businesses afloat. One of the programs Congress created and funded was the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which required schools to give at least half of the aid received directly to students in the form of emergency grants for COVID-related expenses. What made this grant program unique and effective was that these grants were not considered Estimated Financial Assistance (EFA), thus excluding them from a number of federal rules that can often make it difficult or impossible to distribute the emergency aid to students in need. 

HEERF was a limited and temporary pot of money, but student emergencies have not gone away, nor will they. And with this federal grant program nearly exhausted, schools seeking to provide emergency grant aid to students once again face challenges and delays. The COVID-19 pandemic shone a light on the need to get emergency aid into the hands of students as quickly as possible, and AccessLex has been advocating for policy changes to do just that since 2020. More recently, we recommended that Congress continue to fund an emergency grant aid program that does not treat this aid as EFA. This would ensure that more students get the money they need when they need it. 

In March 2020, in response to the pandemic, we made available $5 million through the Law Student Emergency Relief Program to our nearly 200 member law schools to distribute to students experiencing emergencies. The money from the program went to each school's designated student emergency fund, allowing schools to administer the funds in a manner consistent with their established criteria for emergency relief. A grant program such as this gives schools the flexibility to determine which emergencies qualify for aid, which criteria should be applied, and the maximum award. Structuring an emergency grant program in this way can increase the effectiveness of the program and the speed at which funds are delivered to students in need. 

This is why we support a new bill, the Emergency Grant Aid for College Students Act, introduced by Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) and Representative Joe Morelle (D-NY-25). This bill would create a grant program for schools to distribute grant aid to students for emergencies beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, such as car repairs, medical bills, and other financial emergencies. Most importantly, these grants would not count as EFA, they would not be considered income for financial aid or tax purposes, and they would not have to be repaid. Priority for the grants may be given to certain institutions which serve larger numbers of low-income students and students of color, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, other minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and rural institutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought many challenges for American institutions and systems, as well as everyday citizens. But from those challenges have emerged opportunities. We urge Congress to act on one of those opportunities to ensure that students facing emergencies do not have to wait needlessly for available aid because of red tape.