University of Akron

Colleges across the country have received three rounds of federal funding during the pandemic. Each installment included money designated strictly to offer emergency financial assistance to students, as well as funding earmarked to help with institutions’ costs.

Portions of that pool often went toward the essentials used in an attempt to limit the virus’ reach: personal protective equipment, increased cleaning, dorm renovations.

Those things are still important, of course. The latest installment of higher ed funding being distributed this summer via the American Rescue Plan (ARP) mandates some of colleges’ institutional funds must “help fight the spread and transmission of COVID-19,” per guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

There’s flexibility in how officials decide to do that, though. Overall, both the second and third rounds of funding in general give more freedom in how money can be spent. It’s an important offering for local colleges and universities, especially as the upcoming fall semester might bring more uncertainty.

“It’s a big shift from establishing everything we had to do, to now really focusing more on our student needs,” said David Kuntz, executive vice president of administration and finance at Cuyahoga Community College.

The college is receiving about $20.1 million allocated for institutional costs in this latest relief package signed by President Joe Biden in March and distributed over the spring and summer. The minimum student aid portions are bigger than the maximum amount able to be used by an institution for its needs.

Tri-C is diverting $5 million of its institutional funds to bring student aid up to about $26.5 million. The majority of community college students nationwide are women and/or people of color, two groups hit the hardest by the pandemic’s effects. Two-year public institutions across the country saw the biggest enrollment declines last fall. At 19%, Tri-C’s reported full-time enrollment drop nearly doubled the national rate.

Kuntz said the college wants to use some of its institutional funding to offer expanded around-the-clock student services. If busy working parents are settling in to do some schoolwork at night, they need to be able to pick up their phone and find support that fits in their schedule. It’s important.

“We want them to get a live person,” he said. “Because we know that if they get a voicemail, they’ll be all too quick just to hang up their phones.”

One thing Tri-C isn’t doing is using this round of institutional funds to essentially reimburse itself for lost tuition and fees. Other schools are, including Notre Dame College. Right now, president Mike Pressimone projects the school may have to use about $1 million to offset revenue losses.

The final amount could change, and Pressimone hopes it does. It depends on the amount of students that enroll for the upcoming semester. The South Euclid campus saw its full-time enrollment drop 13% to 1,215 students last fall.

Pressimone said the school still is trending behind on this front, though it tends to earn more commitments closer to the start of the semester. Recovery for the college, he estimates, really won’t begin to appear until fall 2022.

“With all the variations that are happening now and the increase in infections, there just is uncertainty in the marketplace,” Pressimone said.

The University of Akron is receiving about $20 million in institutional funds via the ARP. Officials there, too, plan to use $27 million to offset lost revenue. Some of that amount is also coming from the $15.8 million delivered in the second round of funding.

The move comes after UA cut 178 jobs last year and saw an 8% drop in full-time enrollment last fall. Officials project a 4% decline in enrollment this semester.

The university decided to divide its institutional funding into two additional buckets aside from revenue loss recovery, according to senior vice president and chief financial officer Dallas Grundy. A capital budget will cover installation of some new ionization units in buildings as well as potential technology updates to classrooms. There’s a catch-all pot, too, that will go toward things like paying for cleaning services or surveillance testing.

“I don’t want to overstate and say it’s been a game changer, but it’s arguably been a game changer,” Grundy said of the funding.

The first round of federal help proved tough for many in higher ed to navigate. Things have gotten easier by this point to some degree, yet there’s still a 28-page frequently asked questions document on the Department of Education’s website for this latest round of what’s been dubbed Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, or HEERF, grants.

“Given the emergency nature of HEERF grants, the department encourages grantees to use their awards to cover expenses associated with the coronavirus as they arise and not hold off on doing so,” reads one portion of the document.

Even still, the department allows the spending to continue into 2022. Some places are playing the long game when it comes to using their institutional dollars. That includes Cleveland State and its $17.6 million ARP award.

“God forbid the Delta variant gets real bad and we have to change instructional modality again, we have to introduce additional health and safety measures on campus,” said Jonathan Wehner, CSU’s vice president and dean of admissions, enrollment management and student success. “We want to have some of those funds still available to us in order to execute if we have to pivot again.”

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