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Federal funding provides relief to higher education institutions

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has been extraordinarily generous with supplemental funding for higher education institutions. The federal funding has enabled colleges and universities to take a creative approach to assisting their students and mitigating the institution’s financial losses.

For example, Robeson Community College in Lumberton, NC is offering faculty, students and staff a $100 incentive to vaccinate. Anyone enrolled or employed at the college between July 1, 2021 and December 31, 2021 is eligible for the one-time payment. To claim the incentive, an eligible student or employee must upload a vaccination card showing that the individual has received either two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or a single Johnson and Johnson vaccine. The program is open to both credit and non-credit enrollees.

For context, Robeson County is about one-third the size of Washtenaw County but has recorded nearly 24.000 cases of COVID-19. Its recorded case load indicates that more than 18% of Robeson County’s population has had COVID-19. It has recorded 382 deaths. In contrast, Washtenaw County has recorded nearly 31,000 COVID-19 cases, impacting about 8.4% of the county’s population. Washtenaw County has recorded 323 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

The cash incentive to vaccinate is just one way that community colleges are spending the federal funding they received from Congress. Others are using funds to improve airflow in buildings or make other building safety improvements. Additionally, a growing number of community colleges are using federal funds to cancel student debts, or provide direct aid to students for housing, food, healthcare, transportation, Internet service, computer devices and childcare. Still others have offered their students tuition abatements or direct cash assistance.

Federal funding increasingly targets student needs

In the first federal relief package for higher education, the $31B allocation came with certain strings attached. Institutions distributed a minimum of 50% of relief funding directly to students. That direct aid to students could take many forms, including everything from direct cash payments to tuition fee and book grants to subsidies for Internet service, housing, food and other living expenses.

The second federal higher education relief package set aside $82B for higher education institutions. The restrictions on spending were fewer; recipient institutions had to offer the same dollar amount they’d offered to students in the first round of funding. The institution could determine how to spend the remainder of the funds.

The third higher education relief package was signed into law on March 11, 2021 and provided nearly $40B in additional relief to educational institutions. $10B of these funds were set aside specifically for community colleges. These funds come with new strings attached. Required uses of these funds include the implementation of evidence-based practices to monitor and suppress COVID-19. Additionally, the funds must be used to “conduct direct outreach to financial aid applicants about the opportunity to receive a financial aid adjustment due to the recent unemployment of a family member or independent student.”

The program rules and goals have grown increasingly complex. That’s likely due, in part, to the shift in administration following the 2020 presidential election. The Trump Administration authorized the first two aid packages, which came with relatively few rules. The Biden Administration authorized the third package, which came with more specific guidance on allowable and intended expenditures.

It’s worthwhile to compare how community colleges around the state (including WCC) have used their federal funding. I’ll look at that in tomorrow’s post.

Photo Credit: Keith Cooper , via Flickr