Higher Ed's Parachute

Institutions are set to get a lot of money from the latest stimulus. What are they going to spend it on?

March 22, 2021
 
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With the ink now dry on Congress’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package, some colleges and universities have begun making plans for the money they’re slated to get. Many of those plans include covering budget shortfalls from last year or expected ones this year.

The nation’s nonprofit institutions are set to get about $36 billion from the package. The text of the legislation stipulates that colleges and universities must spend at least half the money they receive on emergency aid to students. However, some institutions are considering allocating more than that to students.

“As we work through this, providing enough aid for our students will be our top priority,” said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. “I think we will still have so much need we will continue to spend the institutional portion on aid as well.”

Eighty percent of Trinity’s students are eligible for federal Pell Grants. McGuire said that another priority will be buttressing the college’s tech capacity -- an endeavor that would include improving home internet access for students and expanding the institutional server capacity. Many students had issues with bandwidth this year while learning remotely, McGuire said.

After those tasks and potentially some investments in faculty development, a portion of the money will go to covering lost revenue for the past year, McGuire said. In addition to room and board losses, Trinity lost about $1 million from the cancellation of conferences for this year. The congressional funds will help the college meet financial expectations set by the bank that holds its loans.

Other colleges have made similar plans for their allocations.

“For the dollars allocated to the university out of the American Rescue Plan, OU plans to put much of it toward reimbursing COVID-related expenses from the past year,” said a spokesperson from the University of Oklahoma via email.

Institutions can’t say for sure how much they’ll be getting from the package, but the Education Department will likely take into account general head count as well as the number of students eligible for Pell Grants at each institution. A distribution simulation from the American Council on Education estimates that OU will receive around $49 million (with half of that to be given to students).

Roger Williams University in Rhode Island similarly expects to use the money to cover COVID-related costs. “For RWU, these federal funds help provide relief to our students and the institution, defraying a portion of the significant investment we made into a safe reopening with COVID testing on campus,” a spokesperson said via email. The university, which is estimated to receive about $7 million in total, invested in a twice-weekly testing program for this academic year.

Case Western Reserve University and Colby College are also both expecting to use their institutional portion to cover COVID-related expenses. Similarly, the University of Maine system is looking into using the institutional half of its expected $55 million to close existing or expected budget gaps.

A few other institutions have said they’re not sure what they’ll be spending the money on yet. The Education Department has yet to put out any specific guidance or rules on how funding can be spent. Harvard University, Cornell University and the University of Houston Downtown said they were still reviewing the legislation and implementation, or had no plans to share yet.

But like Trinity, some other institutions are planning to make investments. Brookdale Community College, in New Jersey, had already set some priorities for the funding before the bill was passed, said President David Stout.

Most of the institutional portion will be spent on COVID-19 safety along with teaching and learning investments, Stout said. The college is planning to purchase more protective equipment, Plexiglas, tents for outside gatherings and ventilation filters to address COVID-19 safety, as well as laptops and cameras for students and microphones for instructors.

Some of those investments will help back up the college’s approach to this upcoming fall. While there will be more on-campus and in-person classes, Brookdale is planning to offer some flexibility. Students will be able to sign up for an in-person class and patch themselves into the room on Zoom.

“We don’t want students to feel like they have to come to class if they’re either uncomfortable or especially if they’re feeling sick. Stay home and you can patch in through livestreaming,” he said. “We want to encourage that so we’re not putting students in a dangerous situation.”

Brookdale is also planning to expand Wi-Fi into campus parking lots so students don’t have to come inside if they don’t feel safe. Some of the campus “remote centers” around the county will connect students with staff who can help fix issues, even if staff aren’t physically present.

Brookdale is also planning to use some of the funding for transportation, student services software and public messaging.

Over all, institutions have expressed gratitude for the funding now headed for them and their students.

“It’s really going to enable our students to be able to learn, our faculty to be able to teach,” Stout said, “and to do that in an environment where they’re safe and comfortable.”

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