Undedicated higher education CARES funding should be invested in students’ immediate needs

COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.

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In April, colleges and universities across the country received a surge of federal funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to offset the burdens these institutions will face because of the COVID-19 crisis. In total, Oklahoma colleges and universities received approximately $106 million in federal funds, with grants to individual institutions ranging from $608,000 to almost $18 million. While half of the funds must be spent on direct financial aid to students impacted by the pandemic, this leaves between $300,000 to $9 million in flexible dollars for each college to spend as they see fit before the deadline of December 2020. This influx of flexible funding gives college administrators a unique opportunity to invest in their most vulnerable students, many of whom were struggling to meet their basic needs even before COVID-19 caused record unemployment.

Colleges and universities should dedicate CARES Act funding to help ensure students have access to necessities such as food and housing. This can significantly reduce the number of students forced to drop out of school due to financial hardship and help secure Oklahoma’s economic recovery in the aftermath of COVID-19.

Low-income colleges students are more vulnerable during COVID-19

While food and housing insecurity among college students was present before the pandemic, COVID-19 has severely exacerbated the circumstances faced by students, particularly those in community colleges. In April, about 1 in 3 students reported cutting meal sizes or skipping meals altogether because they didn’t have enough money for food, while up to 18 percent of students enrolled in two-year institutions and 16 percent of students at four-year institutions responded saying they were experiencing homelessness. Students’ lives have become even more precarious as 2 out of 3 students have lost jobs or have had hours cut because of the pandemic, making it difficult to reliably provide food or shelter for themselves. These issues are more severe in community colleges, which serve higher proportions of low-income students than four-year institutions and have seen larger tuition increases compared to their four-year counterparts, placing even more strain on their students. College students are particularly vulnerable to this crisis. If we want students to continue investing both in their futures and that of our state, then administrators at colleges and universities should invest CARES funding to help students meet their basic needs. 

Colleges and universities should use CARES Act funding to ensure students have access to food and housing

Undedicated CARES Act funding should be used to ensure students’ basic needs are met by surveying students to fully understand their needs and proactively connecting students with the right programs and resources. Many institutions of higher education have already set up food pantries or partnered with regional food banks to serve their food-insecure student population. Additionally, some universities across the country have created student emergency expense funds that give students small amounts of cash to cover emergency short-term expenses, such as next month’s rent or an unexpected car repair. By using a portion of the undedicated CARES Act funding, college administrators can create or expand upon these programs to meet the increased needs of their students. 

To ensure these programs are reaching those who need them, institutions also must effectively promote these programs to students by email, on-campus advertising, or having frontline staff and faculty assist with connecting students to these resources. Institutions also should survey food- and housing-insecure students to measure the programs’ effectiveness and adjust program delivery as needed. If college administrators effectively address students’ basic needs, then they can help prevent vulnerable students from dropping out due to financial security.

Helping students stay in college is good for Oklahoma’s economy 

If Oklahoma wants to quickly recover from the economic downturn caused by this pandemic, it will be crucial to support those enrolled in post-secondary education. During economic recessions, when unemployment is high and wages are low, individuals often go back to school and acquire new skills so they can be more competitive when the job market recovers. Removing barriers for people to build these skills is a solid investment both in their future as well as in Oklahoma’s economy. For example, a 2019 report found that Oklahoma residents with associate degrees earned an average of 17 percent higher wages than high school graduates, and residents with bachelor’s degrees earned 60 percent higher than high school graduates. College graduates earning higher wages helps all of us by increasing the state’s tax base and helping ensure individuals can be self-sufficient in the future. In fact, the Oklahoma State Regents of Higher Education estimates that every dollar invested in higher education funding generated $9.40 in economic output. The data are clear: investing in students and removing barriers to graduation is a sound investment that pays remarkable dividends.

Now more than ever, many students are going to need these investments to help them meet their basic needs to allow them to finish their education. Oklahoma’s higher education administrators should use their undedicated CARES Act funding to invest in our students and our state. 

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About the Author

Josie Phillips published this blog post as a policy intern for OK Policy and transitioned into a Policy Fellowship with a focus on labor and the economy in August 2021. Read her full bio below.


Josie Phillips joined OK Policy in June 2020 as a policy intern and transitioned into a policy Fellowship with a focus on labor and the economy in August 2021. She served as a Policy Fellow until July 2022. She currently serves as State Priorities Partnership Fellow with the Maine Center on Economic Policy. Josie graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2020 with a double major in Economics and International & Area Studies along with a minor in Spanish. While she has dabbled in working with various non profit organizations and a political campaign, her most treasured experience before entering the public policy field has been her time volunteering with the Women’s Resource Center, a rape crisis center and domestic violence shelter in Norman, Oklahoma.

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