Giselle Paredes sits at her dining room table to work on her online classes in accounting from El Paso Community College. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Just weeks before Helen Bonds graduated from El Paso Community College, she was unsure if she’d be able to reach that milestone because she was short on money and had already exhausted her financial aid.

But Bonds found a quick solution through federal funding that’s helped her and thousands of other El Paso college students meet their goals.

The aid came in the form of Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds allocated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic under the Trump and Biden administrations.

“I definitely needed it because I had already spent my financial aid money and needed money for textbooks,” she said.

Bonds said that she spent approximately $200 on textbooks and is now saving the rest for a car to help her commute to the University of Texas El Paso, where she plans on finishing her education.

The University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College have received over $100 million in federal funding aimed at COVID-19 relief. At EPCC, more than 50% of their funds are projected to go toward financial aid for students and the rest towards revenue recovery and institutional purposes, according to the Grants Management Office at EPCC.

To date, three rounds of relief funding have been distributed to higher education institutions across the country.

The first round of funding was passed last December as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. For UTEP graduate Yvette Lynum, the extra $250 allowed her to pay for needed medication.

“It was very helpful because recently I had a medical condition so I used the money for that,” she said.

In March 2021, $39.6 billion was approved through President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, the largest amount of funding to date.

Through the three rounds, UTEP has received approximately $149 million while EPCC has received approximately $118 million.

“The federal assistance has made an important impact on students,” Keri Moe, the associate vice president of External Relations, Communication & Development at EPCC, said in an email. “EPCC students have been adversely affected by the pandemic and this support has helped them stay in school and fund other critical expenses.”

The latest round of funding requires that institutions allocate half of the grant money to emergency financial aid for all students. Students can spend the money on school or other necessities.

Before the start of the pandemic, 45% of students in higher education claimed they were food insecure in the prior 30 days. That number was higher for community college students at 48%.

Beginning next week, EPCC students will be able to apply for the third round of funding. Full-time students can receive up to $1,000 and part-time students are eligible for up to $750, according to EPCC officials.

“At EPCC, more than 85 percent of students receive some type of financial aid,” school officials said in a news release. “Even prior to the pandemic a significant number of students were already experiencing insecurity in meeting basic needs such as food, housing and tuition.”

Last week UTEP notified students that they could start applying for the additional funds for the upcoming fall semester.

“From Monday, July 19, 2021, through Aug. 15, UTEP will notify between 1,000 and 2,000 eligible students each day that they can now apply for these relief funds,” UTEP said in an email to students. “Be aware that Federal regulations require the University to prioritize students with the greatest financial need first.”

El Paso Matters reached out to UTEP with questions on how they’ve spent their funding but the university declined to comment.

For the previous two rounds of funding, students had to indicate what their specific needs were in order to receive federal money. This upcoming application process doesn’t require students to do so.

“All students enrolled will be eligible for funding which they can use towards tuition or other expenses incurred due to the pandemic,” Moe said.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, UTEP spent over $1 million toward faculty and staff training and another million on distance learning supplies from March to December of 2020.

Both schools have spent less than half of their total HEERF funds and are required to spend the aid by May 2022.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.