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Pandemic-era aid helped cover students’ basic needs, kept them enrolled

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Kathryn Carley

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(New Hampshire News Connection) College students receiving extra aid to help pay for food, housing or transportation are more likely to stay in school, according to new research.

Administrators at Southern New Hampshire University found students who received payments in one round of emergency pandemic grant funding were 15 percent more likely to remain enrolled through multiple terms, compared to their peers.

Jamie Fasteau, executive director of the university's Center for Higher Education Policy and Practice, said students cannot learn when they are hungry. 

"Providing increased stability through basic needs is going to increase persistence," Fasteau explained. "Not just at Southern New Hampshire, but every other university."

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Fasteau pointed out the positive results on student retention led the university to develop another emergency grant program for students in need. Many, she said, are nontraditional students, who also work full-time or have families to support.

Federal data show food and housing insecurity affects more than 20% of undergraduate students nationwide, yet fewer than half of college students eligible for federal SNAP benefits are getting the added support.

Fasteau noted administrators are asking Congress to adjust the program to ensure those who qualify can access the aid, and avoid making the hard choice between basic needs or pursuing a degree. 

"The first thing that's going to go, understandably, is your education," Fasteau acknowledged. "The irony being, your education is what's going to allow you to get off basic food services and to find economic safety and stability."

Fasteau reported the federal grants, awarded through the CARES Act, helped keep both universities and students afloat through the pandemic but emphasized students were struggling to meet their basic needs long before COVID-19. She added the university is still "unpacking" the data to learn more about how best to help students stay in school.

Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.