Last year, the effects of COVID-19 caused unemployment rates to increase and forced many businesses to shut their doors.
For higher education institutions, the transition to virtual learning resulted in revenue loss and created more awareness around existing equity gaps.
However, the passing of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020 offered a temporary funding solution for individuals and industries.
Among the $2.2 trillion allocated under the CARES Act, $14 billion was distributed to the Office of Postsecondary Education as part of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). More recently, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provided $40 billion to the higher education sector.
To understand how colleges and universities used their emergency grant funding, consulting firm Whiteboard Advisors hosted a virtual panel discussion with higher education leaders and advocates on Monday.
“For all of higher education, this was a challenging time,” said Dr. Julie Alexander, vice provost for academic affairs at Miami Dade College (MDC). “For many institutions, like Miami Dade, it was particularly difficult beyond the academic endeavors. Life for all of us has been hard. Life for individuals that already have hard lives is that much more difficult.”
Due to its close proximity to ski resorts and reliance on the local economy, Colorado Mountain College (CMC) acted before the CARES Act funding guidance was announced. To encourage students to stay within the mountain communities rather than leaving for urban cities, CMC offered summer 2020 tuition at no cost.
Despite ultimately not being able to use stimulus funding to cover the tuition, CMC was still able to offer the free program. Now, crediting this initiative and others, the school is on pace to graduate its largest class in history, according to CMC President and CEO Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser.
“The more that we can do to support our economy recovering is actually good for us,” said Hauser. “It’s very much a holistic ecosystem.”
At Georgia State University, two processes were developed to distribute the CARES Act funding. Students filled out an application to indicate their needs. More than 4,000 grants were given out over the last year. However, wanting to reach more students, the university used their existing data to automatically identify students who faced financial hardships. Using this method, more than 40,000 grants have now been administered to students.
“We think that proactive approach to distributing CARES Act and subsequent federal aid has been critical in distributing the money more equitably and also eliminating equity gaps,” said Dr. Tim Renick, executive director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State.
Institutions also used funding to address accessibility challenges brought on by virtual learning.
At MDC, students had the ability to check out mobile hotspots and over 3,000 laptops were distributed. Additionally, the institution also referred students to free available resources provided by larger internet providers.
“There is a lot that we have done,” said Alexander. “But there is certainly a long way to go into ensuring that students have adequate access to internet.”
Access to technology was not just a challenge for students. Faculty and staff members also experienced it. To address this, CMC offered its employees a remote learning stipend to help with technology upgrades and other needs while working remote.
In additional to courses, mental health support also moved online. At Georgie State, the online platform for its group counseling sessions has increased participation.
“We think this is because the stigma has been reduced,” said Renick. “Rather than having to show up in a room physically, you are instead popping up on a screen. In that sense, it’s been kind of a bright spot.”
As institutions and students continue to grapple with the effects of COVID-19, the panelists also provided recommendations around needed state and federal policies.
Rather than focusing on merit-based programs, Dr. Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust, advised states to invest in need-based initiatives.
At the federal level, Hauser emphasized the need to increase Pell grant amounts and offer more flexibility on the use of financial aid.
Currently, the Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) rules require students to maintain a 2.0 grade point average to receive federal aid. Out of fear that students will begin “falling out of compliance” for federal aid eligibility, Renick encouraged policymakers to adjust the rules.
“Business is not as usual,” he said. “Students cannot be expected to perform in the same way during a pandemic. If we do not adjust that policy, what we are going to be doing is finding even more students, especially from low-income and underserved backgrounds, walking away from higher education.”
Sarah Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.