When colleges got billions of federal dollars back in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, many leaders hoped it was just the beginning. But institutions have received only that first round of money so far, leaving some Ohio schools to stretch parts of those grants out as the virus and its impact rages on.
“We knew that this was going to get a lot worse before it got better, and we also didn’t know whether there would be additional money coming from the government,” said Dr. Forrest Faison, senior vice president for research and innovation and chief health care strategy officer at Cleveland State University who’s also leading the university’s pandemic response efforts. “So it was important for us to be judicious to buy the things that we needed to make the campus safe and take care of our students, but at the same time, protect as much as we could for the spring semester.”
Ohio’s campuses were awarded roughly $417 million via the Higher Education Emergency Relief fund portion of the CARES Act. According to the most recent estimates, they’ve collectively spent about $300 million of it as of late September.
This funding, including Hiram College’s $1.08 million, was distributed in the spring. Officials there called it an all-hands-on-deck situation as administrators worked collaboratively on preparations for a unique fall semester.
“Every time we’d solve one problem, we’d find two or three others that we just hadn’t thought about,” said Liz Okuma, senior vice president and dean of students at the Hiram campus.
Campuses across the state focused on similar priorities with the money. Youngstown State University reported paying about $90,000 on personal protective equipment and $127,000 to secure additional laptops. Kent State University noted spending more than $9.6 million in reimbursements for things like tuition and room and board, along with other fee refunds.
Lorain County Community College used about $275,000 as bridge payments to help part-time employees who had to turn to unemployment after the campus shut down. Institutions have about a year from the initial issue date to spend the funds.
This funding pool included a specific allocation intended just to be used for emergency grants to quickly help students dealing with COVID-related disruptions. Lots of attention in the spring focused on that front, but federal officials then created confusing and shifting rules about who could get the help.
Cuyahoga Community College learned it would be eligible in April, according to Angela Johnson, vice president of enrollment management. It took the campus about three to four weeks to develop a distribution process amid the changing guidance.
They weren’t alone. By May, only 28% of the nearly 600 administrators surveyed by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators actually had distributed any cash to students. The portion that hadn’t reported they were waiting on more guidance from the Department of Education or that they were still creating their own award policies.
“As the changes were happening, we did not have the money,” Johnson said. “So in a lot of ways, we did have some opportunity to make these adjustments.”
Once made, campus leaders worked to get information about the available funding out to students and created a process where eligible students could apply for the grants, eventually streamlining things so that those approved applicants would receive funds in about three to five days.
The average amount the campus distributed clocked in at $1,247. That offered some help, Johnson said, adding that it would also supplement existing financial aid awards. But for those facing economic hits leveled by the virus like a job or home loss, that amount isn’t exactly a lifeline.
“I think more broadly, students have higher needs,” she said. “I don’t know what could have been enough for them. They had some financial needs and situations that certainly more money could be helpful.”
The campus helped students secure more help, including through its foundation. Institutions also received separate, additional state allocations of CARES Act funding, and some others took out PPP loans.
But the costs to keep colleges and universities afloat are staggering. In a December letter to congressional leaders calling for more aid, the American Council on Education reiterated an ask for at least an additional $120 billion to help with new expenses and lost revenue.
Lynn Pasquerella’s Association of American Colleges and Universities was one of many higher education groups that endorsed that note. The organization’s president said the first round of support just wasn’t enough for her members.
“There are so many needs that individuals are facing, not only in the higher education sector, but in health care, in K-12, other aspects of our society,” she said “So we understand that need to allocate scarce resources. Yet higher education traditionally serves as a catalyst for economic and social mobility, and at this moment in time, that seems more important than ever.”
Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.