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HEER Funding Kept Community Colleges Open and Students Enrolled


Linkedin Sales Solutions H448yp0t2q Q UnsplashCommunity colleges were able to persevere through the pandemic thanks to the emergency relief funding passed through Congress.

That’s the conclusion of the latest research from the Accelerating Recovery in Community Colleges Network at the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University. Without Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER) funding, experts say many community college programs would have closed, faculty and staff laid off, and more students forced to stop out on their pathways towards accreditation. Some colleges might have even shut their doors permanently.

“We began to see early on [in the pandemic] many students were not enrolling, and community colleges are largely funded on the basis of enrollment,” said Dr. Thomas Brock, director of the CCRC. “Early predictions were quite dire, but the quick action by Congress to create HEER would have a major role in keeping community colleges whole and giving them additional money, flex money, to help students stay in school during this very difficult time.”

Community colleges lost a shocking 15% of their annual enrollments because of the pandemic, a huge difference from the usual plus or minus 2% enrollment seen year to year. But HEER funding, the report said, “more than made up for tuition losses.”

HEER funds totaled over $75 billion, with $25 billion going directly to community colleges. The funds came with very little restrictions for their implementation except that one portion was designated to support the institutions themselves and the rest targeted direct student support.

Dr. Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream.Dr. Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream.“What I think was really brilliant about the way the community colleges used the resources was they put students first,” said Dr. Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a network of over 300 community colleges dedicated to addressing educational inequities. “Going into COVID was an emerging big need around basic needs, tech access, food insecurity, housing insecurity, and they really stepped up and made emergency student aid an agenda.”

Stout said that colleges with strategic financial plans were more easily able to invest HEER funds into long-term projects. But now that the emergency funding has come to an end, she said some colleges have found themselves struggling.

“Now, we’re back to this under-resourced status. We’re beginning to see some states where the community college budgets are looking at reductions. That’s a concern,” said Stout. “We come out of all of this with a lot of good learning about being more thoughtful about what student aid looks like, changing the narrative around emergency aid. If we want students to attend, we have to figure out wrap-around supports and funding them, and not look at them as emergency—these students are in perpetual emergency.”

Stout, Brock, and other experts agree that policy makers should use this data as a starting point to think about creative and meaningful ways to re-invest in and sustain higher education.

“There was a lot of positive government support for community colleges. If I’m a policy maker, I’m thinking, on reflection, we really did need this system of community colleges, and we are committed to it,” said Dr. Clive Belfield, professor of economics at Queens College, a research affiliate with the CCRC, and one of the authors of the report.

“If I were a policy maker, I’d say, ‘What do we need for our economy? A good higher education system.’ We need to put some money into it. And when we did [put money into it], we got reasonable bounce back of enrollment, participation, and graduation rates,” said Belfield.

HEER funding ended up raising the average total community college revenue from $81 million to $84 million, with each college receiving an average of an additional $4 million in student aid.

“It’s a lot of money,” said Belfield. “But the colleges had to do a lot of things differently as institutions, and they had to do them immediately. They tried to keep open for and cater to as many students as possible, so they did need this money.”

Dr. Olga Rodriguez, director of the Public Policy Institute of California Higher Education Center.Dr. Olga Rodriguez, director of the Public Policy Institute of California Higher Education Center.Dr. Olga Rodriguez, director of the Public Policy Institute of California Higher Education Center, surveyed California’s community colleges and assessed how they used HEER funding.

“Most colleges used need to determine the amount of money they would award to students. Pell Grant recipients in California got more in aid than their non-Pell peers,” said Rodriguez. “They prioritized equity over equality in providing emergency aid.”

Emergency funds for these students covered a range of needs, from housing and food insecurity to helping students cover the cost of their books, paying off any accrued debts or fines, or providing free or for-loan laptops, allowing access to online instruction, the go-to when in-person gatherings were shut down.

Institutional funds, said Rodriguez, were mostly spent supporting the infrastructural upgrades and training for faculty and staff to move rapidly online. Other moneys were directed towards updating ventilation systems to keep the students, staff, and faculty who needed to meet in person as safe as they could be during a respiratory-transmitted pandemic.

“In California, we also wanted to know, moving forward, what share of [the community college’s] courses do they expect to be online. We found over half of the colleges that responded expect to offer over 40% of their courses online,” said Rodriguez.

That technological investment has had long-term payoff, Rodriguez added, but it comes with another complication, because “sustaining and supporting technology is something you have to continually invest in, upgrade, and support.”

“The pandemic really shone a light on how food insecurity and mental health effects student success in and outside the classroom,” said Rodriguez. “The need became clearer. Most colleges want to keep the emergency aid given to students. But most said, they will continue offering it at a reduced level. The amount of grants provided moving forward will be reduced because they don’t have a large infusion of federal funds.”'

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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