Stark State College

One of the criticisms with the higher education allocation of the CARES Act was that community colleges didn’t get enough support. But the recently passed second federal relief package is changing that as the pandemic rages on.

The institutions are slated to get a much bigger slice of the $20.5 billion earmarked for public and nonprofit colleges nationwide in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.

The boost comes thanks in part to a formula change that places more emphasis on a campus’ total student headcount and not just its full-time enrollment. Administrators say it’s an important shift for community colleges, where the average age is reportedly 28, roughly half are students of color, and 57% are women. The majority of students are enrolled part time.

“We have to provide the same services to every student whether that student is part-time or full-time,” said Stark State College president Para Jones. “The cost of education can be, frankly, overwhelming for a community college while we try to keep our tuition low.”

Another big complaint surrounding the first allocation of higher education funding was the shifting rules that came along with it. Lakeland Community College’s Mike Mayher said that caused a lot of anxiety during an already stressful time in 2020.

There’s hope that things go smoother now, though institutions point out they’re still awaiting the act’s final interpretation and any additional direction that may come from the U.S. Department of Education.

This time, colleges and universities that received CARES funds didn’t have to submit a new application to tap into the latest pool. Plus, this tranche offers some leeway on how funds marked for institutions can be spent.

There’s money available for students again, slated to go toward things like the cost of attendance or paying any pandemic-related emergency costs like housing, food or child care. Institutions now have to prioritize helping those with exceptional needs first. Another change is that students enrolled in distance education courses are now eligible to apply for help, too.

Lakeland received more than $6.5 million in total, higher than the $3 million it saw from the first relief package. The Lake County campus is required to distribute at least $1.5 million in student aid awards, an amount Mayher said officials hope to exceed.

A December 2020 survey done by the New America think tank found these community college students are struggling economically. More than one-third of respondents said they fell behind on a bill or received free food from a pantry or other resource after the pandemic hit, researchers said.

“It’s important for us to get money out to our students as quickly as possible,” Lakeland’s Mayher said.

Money from the institutional portion can cover pandemic-related expenses, like lost revenue, staff training sessions, or costs incurred from boosting technology. That’s one area Cuyahoga Community College officials plan to use with their $23 million, which is more than double its CARES allocation. They also plan to invest more into ensuring facilities are clean and safe.

This federal help comes as campuses’ enrollments are declining. Community colleges were the hardest hit across all higher education institutions on this front this past fall, reporting a 10% drop nationwide.

That trend is continuing at Stark State. The North Canton campus’ early numbers show its headcount clocking in at about 10% lower this spring than the same time last year, though officials said they expect to see their final end-of-term number rise after a second eight-week semester begins later.

They want to help boost those enrollment numbers by working with local economic development organizations to reach out to people who are unemployed, underemployed, or otherwise impacted by COVID-19.

“We want to actually get the message out to more of those people in our communities that we can help them start, continue and complete their academic program thanks to these funds,” college president Jones said.

But overall, this still may not be enough to help cash-strapped campuses. The amount in the passed package fell far below the $120 billion higher education advocates had requested. And while some institutions reported stretching out their CARES Act funding because they didn’t know when additional help would arrive, that may not work this time around.

“Reduced enrollments resulting in reduced revenues plus state budget cuts will certainly necessitate or require colleges to use a lot of the money sooner rather than later,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.

More support may be on the way. President Joe Biden called for $35 billion of his $1.9 trillion “rescue plan” to go toward public colleges.

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.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.