This analysis should be attributed to Sara Goldrick-Rab and Carrie R. Welton
January 19, 2021
Just days before his inauguration, President-Elect Joe Biden released his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the first of a two-step administration strategy providing critical financial support for our nation. The plan will provide $35 billion for community colleges and other public higher education institutions, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority-Serving Institutions. The plan provides for other significant changes that will support #RealCollege students, including the extension of stimulus checks to adult dependents, extending and expanding unemployment benefits, increasing nutrition assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), as well as increasing access to housing and health supports.
Support for higher education institutions and students will be critical for our national recovery. The American Rescue plan proposes resources for institutions of higher education and other changes that are essential to #RealCollege students on their path to degree completion. We know that emergency aid, SNAP, and other public benefits, such as access to child care, can increase students’ financial stability and improve a student’s likelihood of completing degrees or certificates. Those students who graduate, in turn, are far more likely to obtain higher-paying and more stable jobs that contribute to their, and our nation’s, well-being.
Extension of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF)
The American Rescue plan builds upon prior federal investment by allocating an additional $35 billion for higher education. Combined with the $14 billion from the CARES Act and the $22.7 billion from the Consolidated Appropriations Act, this additional infusion rightly prioritizes higher education, ensuring colleges and universities can continue their critical role of building the workforce of the future. Additionally, these funds will provide institutions with resources to implement and to maintain robust public health protocols and to invest in distance-learning plans, which will help stymie the spread of COVID-19. The American Rescue Plan also allocates $5 billion in funds for governors to support educational programs in early childhood education, K-12, and higher education.
The American Rescue plan includes a provision for direct emergency grants to students. The plan indicates that students may receive up to an additional $1,700 in financial assistance from their college. The critical precedent set in the CARES Act to provide cash resources to students and trust them to address their expense needs is a departure from existing federal policy that paternalizes support from public programs.
While details have yet to emerge, The Hope Center will continue advocating for direct emergency relief grants for all students in need, disbursed effectively and efficiently through a streamlined process that doesn’t force students to navigate multiple bureaucratic hurdles. We also urge the administration to ensure any formula used to disburse additional stimulus funds prioritizes students with lower incomes and the institutions they attend.
Access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
The incoming administration’s plan extends the 15% increase in SNAP benefits through September, helping 40 million people combat food insecurity. The Hope Center was pleased to see the increase in benefits under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, and we are grateful that this plan will extend those increases. Research shows that SNAP benefits, and removing barriers to access to those benefits, are proven means to reducing food insecurity, which can support student success. Additionally, we agree with the incoming administration’s push to lessen the bureaucracy in adjusting the length and amount of relief depending on health and economic conditions.
While extending the 15% SNAP increase will benefit millions of people, eligibility barriers are pervasive for college students. Public support programs, including SNAP, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, and the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) are rife with restrictions on postsecondary attainment. These policy barriers, rooted in the “work first” trope, serve only to force people to choose between pursuing a college credential or subsisting in perpetuity on low-wage work, creating a poverty trap.
In an economy in which the vast majority of new jobs created require some form of postsecondary credential, we encourage the administration to remove the barriers students face in accessing basic needs support. This includes codifying the exemption flexibility enacted under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which is set to expire at the end of the public health emergency.
Expanded and Increased Stimulus Checks
The American Rescue Plan extends access to stimulus checks to adults claimed as dependents in its proposal. It is past time that adult dependents aren’t treated as though they don’t have their own expenses or even costs to their parents and that their needs are recognized as important during the pandemic. The Biden plan also will increase the amount of stimulus relief by providing $1,400 dollars. The proposed stimulus check is $800 more than what people received in December, but we believe the President-Elect should join House Democrats in their call for $2,000 stimulus checks.
Increased Housing Support
The plan directs $5 billion to help states and localities assist those at risk of experiencing homelessness; knowing that, during the spring of 2020, 15% of four-year students and 11% of two-year students were experiencing homelessness due to the pandemic, we hope these funds will extend to #RealCollege students. We also urge the incoming administration to ensure a portion of the $25 billion in proposed rental relief will be targeted to those earning a college credential.
Wage and Income Support
The administration’s plan to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and to end the tipped minimum wage and the sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities will go far in supporting #RealCollege students. Seventy percent of full-time students are employed, and low-income students are more likely to be employed full-time while attending school. Minimum wage is a college completion issue; an increase in the federal minimum wage means students can take on fewer jobs, and even work fewer hours, while focusing on completing their degree. Increasing the federal unemployment to $400 a week, up $100 from Congress’ enhancement in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, also will be critical for #RealCollege students and their families. More so, extending these payments so people have additional weeks, and ensuring people who were previously ineligible can access unemployment, means people can consider upskilling with a postsecondary credential to join a 21st-century economy.
Given that one-third of #RealCollege students we surveyed in spring 2020 lost their job at the beginning of the pandemic, the administration’s plan to subsidize health-care premiums through September for those who lost their work-based health insurance is a welcomed proposal. In addition, an 8.5% income cap for the Affordable Care Act’s premium payments will mean students do not have to choose between healthcare and tuition. We urge the administration to designate a specified amount of the $4 billion for mental health and substance use disorder services to institutions of higher education as well.
The Path Ahead
As we look forward to President-elect Biden’s inauguration tomorrow, his American Rescue Plan is an important step not only for #RealCollege students but for America. Millions of lives have already been lost, and millions more are suffering as a result of the pandemic; we know that more help is needed. The American Rescue Plan makes significant investments that will support students who dropped out to re-enroll and prospective students to seriously consider enrolling. It also will provide critical aid for institutions and currently enrolled students, solidifying their path to degree completion, and ensuring our country has a prepared workforce.
We hope the administration will build on this stimulus plan, and codify many of the opportunities and expanded support that are set to disappear when COVID-19 is finally eradicated. For example, community colleges still face a $78 billion shortfall, and students will still face financial barriers to a college degree even when life returns to “normal.” Now is the time to support access to a college degree. We commend President-elect Biden on his proposal and look forward to working with his administration in centering the humanity of all #RealCollege students, and safeguarding the well-being of our nation.