This op/ed was originally published in PhilanTopic.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, colleges, nonprofits, government, and philanthropy moved quickly to disburse emergency aid to students, many of whom found themselves without reliable access to food, housing, and technology after their campuses were forced to close. And with job losses affecting both
, that support may have temporarily allayed the fears of students who wondered whether they would ever be able to return to school.
But for two groups of students — those ineligible for federal financial assistance, including undocumented students, and those, like student-parents, with additional financial needs — much-needed relief was in short supply. When government is either unwilling or unable to support students working to make their lives and communities better, philanthropic institutions have a duty to fill the gap. As a new school year marked by uncertainty draws closer, more emergency aid is needed, especially for students whose educational aspirations may slip through the widening cracks created by the pandemic.
While the federal CARES Act provided $6.3 billion in emergency grant funds for colleges and universities to distribute to students, the U.S. Department of Education's original guidance for the funds left out undocumented students, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, and international students, creating confusion for months and in some cases slowing the distribution of aid to other students.
What's more, the funds provided by the CARES Act could only be used for food, housing, and expenses directly related to the cost of attendance, leaving many students without adequate support to continue their education. For student-parents, in particular — who need to support children as well as themselves — expenses almost always exceed the assistance provided by their schools. Even before the pandemic, the cost of food, housing, and child care — which in many states is costlier than tuition or rent — made it difficult for student-parents to complete a degree. Single mothers, for instance, are more likely than any other group of women to have started but not finished college and just 8 percent of single student-moms graduate on time.
As more funders and institutions of higher education begin to examine how their investments can be used to advance racial equity, it's also important to note that 40 percent of all Black women in college are mothers. Clearly, success in closing racial and gender equity gaps in college success will remain elusive if we ignore the needs of student-parents.
DACA recipients enroll in college at about the same rate as their peers, but they are four times less likely to complete a degree. They also are ineligible for Pell grants or other forms of federal financial aid, which makes the high cost of tuition a significant barrier to their ability to complete their education. And while mental health issues disproportionately impact undocumented students' postsecondary success, many undocumented students are unable to qualify for affordable health insurance.
With limited emergency aid available to student-parents and unavailable to most undocumented students, the long-term success of both groups is in doubt and should be a priority for philanthropy going forward.
There's no shortage of research on the economic and societal benefits of investments in these groups. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has increased high school graduation and college enrollment rates and raised productivity and earnings among DACA recipients. Immigrants and international students make significant contributions to the U.S. economy as well as the innovations needed to address the challenges we face and keep the country competitive in a globalized economy.
Likewise, student-parents are risers and earn better grades than non-parenting students. Investing in their success not only helps them, it also benefits their children. Parents who complete a degree have access to higher-paying jobs and, on average, double their income over the course of their working lives, while studies have shown that even a $1,000 increase in salary can result in as much as a 27 percent increase in a child's cognitive development. We all benefit when committed learners are given an opportunity to realize their potential.
Philanthropy is uniquely suited to address these gaps in emergency aid funding — and many funders are already leading the way. In California, the College Futures Foundation and Mission Asset Fund created a statewide emergency aid fund that prioritizes undocumented students, foster youth, and those who are housing insecure. Edquity, which both of our organizations — Imaginable Futures and ECMC Foundation — support, joined Course Hero and Believe in Students to allow anyone to contribute to a pool of emergency funds that will be distributed to students not eligible for CARES Act aid.
Our own organizations invested in emergency aid efforts when the outbreak and subsequent spread of the virus forced campuses to close: Imaginable Futures targeted $400,000 of its emergency aid funding to student-parents and, because they have higher living expenses, required that funding be set at least $1,200 per student-parent, while ECMC Foundation made more than $1.5 million in direct emergency aid grants that went primarily to students who are not eligible for federal financial aid.
Still, as uncertainty looms over the upcoming school year, the educational dreams of 454,000 undocumented students and nearly four million student-parents hang in the balance. With the crisis likely to extend into the fall, we need more philanthropic investment in emergency aid for students left behind by federal programs. Educational equity, economic mobility, breaking the cycle of poverty, racial justice — none of these ambitious goals are realistic if students do not have the resources to succeed.
Undocumented students, DACA recipients, student-parents attend classes and study while navigating family care, financial insecurity, housing instability, and hunger. They fight for their education and their future every day. It is time we fight with them.