Last year, the effects of COVID-19 pushed up unemployment rates and forced many companies to close their doors.
For higher education institutions, the transition to virtual learning has led to a loss of income and increased awareness of existing wealth gaps.
However, passing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020 provided a temporary funding solution for individuals and industries.
Of the $ 2.2 trillion allocated under the CARES Act, $ 14 billion was distributed to the Office of Postsecundary Education as part of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). More recently, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 raised $ 40 billion in higher education.
To understand how colleges and universities used their emergency grant, consulting firm Whiteboard Advisors organized a virtual panel discussion with higher education leaders and lawyers on Monday.
"This was a challenging time for all of higher education," said Dr. Julie Alexander, vice provost for academic affairs at Miami Dade College (MDC). “For many institutions, such as Miami Dade, it was particularly difficult outside of the academic endeavors. Life has been difficult for all of us. Life for individuals who already have a hard life is so much more difficult. "
Due to its proximity to ski resorts and reliance on the local economy, Colorado Mountain College (CMC) acted before the CARES Act funding guidelines were announced. To encourage students to stay in the mountain communities instead of moving to urban cities, CMC offered free tuition for the summer of 2020.
Despite ultimately not being able to use incentive money to cover the tuition fees, CMC was still able to offer the free program. Thanks to this and other initiative, the school is on track to graduate its largest class in history, according to CMC President and CEO Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser.
"The more we can do to support the recovery of our economy is actually good for us," Hauser said. "It's a truly holistic ecosystem."
Two processes have been developed at Georgia State University to distribute the CARES Act funding. Students completed an application to indicate their needs. More than 4,000 grants were awarded in the past year. However, as the university wanted to reach more students, it used their existing data to automatically identify students who were in financial difficulty. More than 40,000 grants have now been awarded to students using this method.
"We believe that a proactive approach to the CARES Act and subsequent federal support has been critical to distributing the money more fairly and also eliminating the equity gap," said Dr. Tim Renick, Executive Director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State.
Institutions also used funding to address accessibility challenges resulting from virtual learning.
At MDC, students were able to view mobile hotspots and more than 3,000 laptops were distributed. In addition, the institution also referred students to freely available resources from larger internet providers.
"We've done a lot," said Alexander. "But there is certainly a long way to go to ensure that students have sufficient access to the Internet."
Access to technology was not only a challenge for students. Teachers and staff have also experienced it. To address this issue, CMC offered its employees a distance learning allowance to help with technology upgrades and other needs while working remotely.
In addition to courses, mental health support has also gone online. At Georgie State, the online platform for its group counseling sessions has increased participation.
"We think this is because the stigma has diminished," said Renick. “Instead of having to appear physically in a room, you end up on a screen instead. In that sense, it has been a bit of a ray of hope. "
As institutions and students continue to grapple with the effects of COVID-19, the panelists have also made recommendations on necessary 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 needs-based initiatives.
At the federal level, Hauser stressed the need to increase Pell grant amounts and provide more flexibility in the use of financial aid.
Currently, Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) rules require students to maintain a 2.0 grade point average to receive federal aid. Fearing that students "no longer comply with the rules" to qualify for federal aid, Renick encouraged policymakers to change the rules.
"Business is not going as usual," he said. “Students cannot be expected to perform the same during a pandemic. If we don't change that policy, we will find even more students, especially with a low income and a disadvantaged background, who will run away from higher education. & # 39; & # 39;
Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected]