Moving ahead while waiting for CARES Act funds

A very quiet spring at Salt Lake Community College's Taylorsville Redwood Campus. (Photo: SLCC)

The $6.28 billion that the CARES Act provides in emergency grants for students is starting to flow to colleges. 

The U. S. Education Department (ED) on April 9 published a list of campus-by-campus allocations and simultaneously went live with the system for colleges to draw down the funds. A small wave of community colleges has already announced student eligibility criteria and application procedures. The announcement of allocations has accelerated the planning efforts happening at other colleges.

ED is expected to issue further guidelines pertaining to the emergency grants as early as today. (The American Association of Community Colleges [AACC] has noted that the guidance may affect the plans that colleges have drafted to disburse those funds.)

A top concern of college leaders is to quickly deliver funds to students in need while not expending all allocated resources this spring. The legislation allows colleges one year for completing disbursements. 

“With the rates of unemployment being what they are, our students need help,” said Steve Rose, president of Passaic County Community College (PCCC) in northern New Jersey. Rose estimates that one-half to two-thirds of PCCC’s students are currently unemployed.

Application-based distribution 

As colleges plan their systems for awarding the grants, two different models are emerging: one based on students actively applying and another distributing aid to students by formula.    

David Daigler, president of the 17,000-student Maine Community College System (MCCS), said that MCCS plans an application-based process, but he noted that “There won’t be a burdensome evidentiary trail.” The online application will ask students to indicate whether they are recently unemployed or are dependent on someone affected by COVID-related unemployment. 

“The sudden impacts of unemployment will take precedence,” Daigler said.  

The application also will ask students to document technology purchases already made and outstanding technology must-haves, such as needing improved internet service. 

Using an existing program

At Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), President Deneece Huftalin is relying on an existing emergency grant program for students in need, called Students in Crisis, as the foundation for her college’s system for awarding CARES Act funding. 

The Student in Crisis application asks students to describe their financial hardships and needs in a short narrative. Students have the option to upload documentation such as unemployment statements, rental charges and utility bills. The maximum award for the Student in Crisis fund has historically been $750.     

As the Student in Crisis process is broadened to service the incoming $5.3 million in CARES Act funds, Huftalin says, “It will be a heavy lift for sure.” 

The financial aid office will be responsible for awarding the CARES Act grants, with frontline staff redeployed to handle the processing of applications and the decision-making. Academic advisors will reach out to students by phone to ensure that those who can benefit know about the fund and will apply.

Huftalin recounted the story of a SLCC student employee with three roommates, all of whom lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Although she’s grateful for the federal funds, which will help, the $5.3 million in federal aid to the college will not cover all the basic housing, food and day-to-day needs of the college’s students, she said. 

Application-based plans similar to those designed for the MCCS system and at SLCC have already gone live at Everett Community College in Washington state and Clark State Community College in Ohio. In a variation of an open application-based system, Hagerstown Community College in Maryland established eligibility criteria. Only students “in good standing, with an expected family contribution of $10,000 or less, and enrolled in at least six credits” are advised to complete its application.   

Formula-based distribution 

The 13 Tennessee community colleges are planning to use a formula to disburse the CARES aid, according to Karen Bowyer, president of Dyersburg State Community College. The college presidents, who meet thrice weekly, have preliminarily agreed to a system that will reserve a portion of funds for special needs and then will distribute the remaining funds using a formula so that all degree-seeking students receive funding. Students receiving Pell grants will receive higher amounts than non-Pell students.  

Explaining why all students are included regardless of their post-pandemic circumstances, Bowyer says, “It would be very difficult to sort through and decide who needs what. Everyone needs it now. It’s hard to separate (those in need from those with means). Almost all businesses are closed now. The job loss is incredible.”

As institutions consider application and formula-based options and hybrids of both, they also are tackling questions of fairness, practicality and legality. AACC has noted that new guidance expected from ED might curtail how colleges can distribute the emergency student grants provided through the CARES Act. For example, recent policy analysis by higher education associations suggests that the funds cannot be distributed to undocumented students, though further clarification is sought from ED.   

As a resource for schools, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University has issued a guide on maximizing the impact of CARES Act emergency aid funds.  

Institutional aid still to come 

The $6.28 billion for emergency grant aid is half of the funds for higher education established by the CARES Act. Another $6.28 billion is designated for direct institutional use and has not been released to colleges yet. 

Once these funds move to the colleges, they will plug immediate and looming budget holes created by pandemic-prompted costs, such as Zoom licenses, and revenue shortfalls, such as disappearing parking revenues.  

The most significant budget challenges are likely to come as states decrease their allocations to higher education. At Passaic County Community College, Rose has already received warning of a $600,000 state funding cut. 

“These are turbulent times,” added MCCS’s Daigler. “We’ve never been down this path before. We must find a way to keep students in college.”

About the Author

Eric Neutuch
is a freelance education writer.
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