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Colleges prepare as federal pandemic funding winds down

Stark State College

Colleges across the country received a big chunk of governmental funding amid the pandemic. Three rounds of federal aid came in to the tune of $75 billion in total.

Local colleges got millions. Cleveland State University saw $71.1 million. Cuyahoga Community College received $78.2 million, and $22.8 million went to Case Western Reserve University.

The cash, officially from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, is split into two buckets. Half was earmarked to go directly to students for emergency grants, while the other portion could go to cover institutions’ costs or expenses incurred during COVID-19.

These funds gave officials the ability to do all kinds of things, including purchase PPE, wipe away institutional debts for students, introduce new initiatives, and even reimburse institutions themselves for tuition hits leveled during the pandemic. Some also used it to boost the pool for student aid.

That money came with a deadline, though. Institutions have a year after they receive the money to spend it. The clock is ticking, and, now, officials across the region are staring down what a post-HEERF life might look like. The cash helped solve problems, but taking it away could create some new ones.

They did, however, use some of it to cut students’ costs. Tuition was waived for recent high school graduates who enrolled. A hundred bucks got shaved off credit-hour prices for everyone else.

The move “helped us ensure that students could remain enrolled, especially as we look at other enrollments, not just of colleges and universities in the region but the community colleges across the state,” Jones said.

Enrollment at two-year publics were among the most impacted in the COVID-19 era. Stark State saw a 7% drop in full-time students in fall 2020, smaller than the 9% reported nationally. The following year saw just a 1% drop in the same category, again less than the 6% felt by community colleges nationwide.

Stark State will be using some of its remaining HEERF dollars — about $22 million as of the end of January — to do the same this fall.

But once those dollars are gone, officials want to replace it with scholarships to continue the offering, according to Jones. She said they’re starting to have conversations to see if the effort could be supported philanthropically.

Jones spoke with students who told her those tuition discounts and emergency grants have been “absolutely critical.” Students could put the awards toward unexpected pandemic-related costs like child care or rent or food, all issues that will still exist even when those grants don’t.

The cash helped lots of students at Notre Dame College, too, according to president J. Michael Pressimon.

He said officials at the South Euclid campus knew the third round of HEERF would probably be the last. After all, no one wants COVID to last forever. It was great to have this money, but he said the college knew it would be a temporary fix. His worries about how students will pay for their education — a concern even before the pandemic — remain.

It’s intensified now. The institutional HEERF money will be gone by June 30. And when that’s coupled with students spending their grants, there’s concern whether the college “can still get the funding we need in order to continue to provide for quality, four-year private, liberal arts based education,” Pressimon said.

Officials are working to grow the college. The fall 2022 semester has more admitted students than the year before. The enrollment staff has been retooled. There are plans to fundraise more ahead of NDC’s upcoming centennial.

But concerns like shifting demographics and a declining number of students on campus existed pre-pandemic. Events of the past few years amplified those challenges.

The University of Akron’s financial struggles have been well-documented over the past few years. Programs got eliminated. There were steep cuts in staff and faculty. Last fall’s full-time enrollment of about 12,400 is a far cry from the 23,220 students enrolled a decade ago.

The university received about $77 million across all rounds of federal funding. Chief financial officer Dallas Grundy called it a “boon.”

It essentially allowed the university, he said, to see an operating surplus not initially projected. UA lost income via a variety of ways, including a lack of facility rentals, athletic ticket sales and room and board fees.

One of the biggest losses — tuition revenue — could deliver a long-term financial blow if enrollment keeps declining. UA is using more than $27 million of its federal funding for tuition reimbursement.

Grundy’s fingers are crossed for change. The university is getting better about telling its story, he said, but UA will need to “see the traction” in terms of an actual impact on enrollment.

Lessening of expenses would, of course, help its financial future. There’s hope costs on things like deep cleaning will decrease.

But the pendulum swings the other way, too. Ongoing COVID-19 testing may still have to happen. Grant funding helped bolster mental health support for students amid the pandemic. Grundy said officials at UA will have to think about how to come up with internal or external funding to keep those going.

Plus, all institutions are dealing with rising costs in these inflationary times. Increasing tuition and fees to offset things could be a tough sell to students and families who may still be reeling from the pandemic’s economic crunch.

“We try to do five-year planning, but really, after you get past two years, it’s like looking into a crystal ball,” UA’s Grundy said. “An unreliable crystal ball.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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