Over the last two weeks, Frank has offered free help to students so they can apply for both emergency grants under the CARES Act and extra financial aid due to COVID-19. We did this because we knew the pandemic would be especially hard for students, who are already in great financial need. But what we didn’t know was that so many students would be completely unaware that they were even eligible for more aid.
In just a few days, about 150,000 students (and counting) have come to us for our free help. 150,000! That number is astounding to us. That means there were 150,000 students in desperate need who had no idea that help was available. And even more are learning about it through our service and our partner Chegg each day.
Here’s the situation: Back in March, Congress allocated about $7 billion for schools to give Emergency Grants directly to students for issues related to COVID-19. But many students have still not gotten the money or have not even been properly informed about its availability by their schools. And the Department of Education did not provide enough guidance for the distribution of these grants.
Frank is a tech company. We rely on data to make informed decisions to help students. But there is no national database for the distribution of these grants. Instead, it’s up to schools to self-publish that information themselves on their own websites. Take a quick look at the websites of any random selection of schools and you’ll see that so many of them are very far from distributing their money to students (and some even make it difficult to find their self-reporting).
Other data on the subject is faulty. For example, one poll by NASFAA says 96% of responding schools have distributed money. But that poll is based on only 237 responses out of about 6,000 eligible schools. For context, that’s a .04% response rate (which rounds down to 0%). And that poll only means that .04% of schools have given out at least $1, which doesn’t reveal a thing about how many students have been helped.
To note, we’ve spoken with NASFAA about this poll and the need for more data. It’s certainly not their fault that there is no national database on the grant distribution, or that schools are offering vastly different grant amounts. We have also incorporated feedback from them to improve our application process. We respect the work they do and we share the same goal of trying to help students.
But the fact that 150,000 students didn’t know about the availability of this crucial aid is a failure across the board. There are many possible reasons why schools have been slow to distribute the grants directly to students, but at the end of the day, students have been suffering, and some may have even dropped out of school, because they didn’t get the money they needed.
Frank has always worked to help students through confusing processes to get more — It’s what we do every day with our simplified FAFSA® experience. The free application process that Frank created for the CARES Act generates a letter that students can send directly to their financial aid office. It takes about 3 minutes for them to complete and there are no strings attached. And if some students need to send follow up information or do another step to get their aid — each school can create their own process for distributing the grants — they are still on the road getting their aid as opposed to being completely unaware.
Just as importantly, the Frank application also allows for the possibility that students might qualify to get their aid appealed if they can’t get a CARES Act grant (and even if they can). Students can often appeal their aid packages directly to their schools when their life circumstances have changed. In fact, Frank was the first company to help students appeal their aid. So even if a student doesn’t qualify for a CARES Act grant, they can still get extra financial help during this time if they lost their job or had other changes in circumstances (which is why these questions are on our application).
Frank is an advocate for students, but we also want to help students advocate for themselves. Raising awareness about the availability of CARES Act emergency grants and about the ability to appeal aid packages is a big part of that.
COVID-19 has turned students’ lives upside down and they deserve all the help we can give them. That means continuing to put pressure on schools who have been slow to distribute money to students in need. It also means getting more guidance from the Department of Education, so these schools can act swiftly and without fear that by helping students they’ll lose their federal support. And it means getting Congress to allocate more money for students and for higher education in general, the same way it has done to help other verticals through the pandemic. As we’ve seen in other industries, its been challenging to ask for more money when the original allocation hasn’t even been spent.
The bottom line is that students need more money and schools, the Department of Education, and Congress have been moving too slow. But you don’t need to take just our word for it — 150,000 students can tell you that, too.