Two top-level U.S. Education Department (ED) officials on Monday provided some more insight on how the department will implement the $12 billion coming to community colleges through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act.
In a webinar on Monday hosted by the Association of Community College Trustees and the American Association of Community Colleges, Michelle Asha Cooper, ED’s acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, and Rich Williams, chief of staff for ED’s postsecondary education office, provided a half-hour overview of the guidance the department released last week. Much of the discussion focused on top-item issues, but the pair also answered questions posted by webinar participants.
Cooper and Williams addressed how colleges will receive the new ARP funds, how they may use these funds and how they should document the use of the funds.
Over the next few weeks, the department will disburse the funds by adding each college’s allocation to the funds they received through the two previous recovery packages, Cooper said. Colleges that haven’t received funds through those relief plans will need to apply for ARP funding.
Once obligations are made, colleges will have one year to use the funds — both new ARP fund and existing Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) — though colleges can ask for a no-cost extension for an additional year. Colleges’ performance period for all funds (ARP and unspent CARES and CRRSAA) will be reset when ED makes the college’s ARP obligation, Williams added.
“The timer resets on all of those funds,” he said.
If a college doesn’t think it can spend the funds in a year, Williams advised the college should let its program manager know early if it may need an extension.
“We’re expecting to be fairly flexible with giving institutions another year for a no-cost extension,” he said.
Use of funds
Cooper highlighted some ways colleges can use their institutional funds, including minor remodeling and staff support if they are related to the pandemic. For example, colleges may use the funds for:
- Installation or renovation of an HVAC system to improve air filtration
- Purchase or lease of temporary trailer classrooms
- Paid student internships and job training experiences that support local Covid-related recovery
- Salaries for staff who were unable to work during a period of any full or partial campus closure
- Any additional/overtime work any staff incurred from March 13, 2020 onward associated with Covid
However, Cooper noted that colleges may not use funds for direct marketing and recruitment activities.
Among the highlights of the guidance released last week is that DACA students may now receive emergency help through the program. The ED officials emphasized this Monday.
“All students, regardless of citizenship, qualify,” according to an ED slideshow presented during the webinar.
The department also noted that students who received a grant through previous relief plans may still receive a grant through ARP.
Discharging student debt
Colleges can use their institutional ARP funds to discharge the complete balance of a student’s debt so students can re-enroll, continue their education or obtain their officials transcript to transfer to another institution and/or secure employment. ED strongly encourages colleges to use their institutional HEERF portion to discharge such debt.
For example, Delaware State University earmarked $730,000 of its ARP allocation to cancel the debts of more than 200 recent graduates who were financially affected by the pandemic, according to ED. The graduates will have an average of $3,200 in debt discharged.
In a Q&A post on the webinar, Williams provided more details about discharging student debt:
“Institutions can discharge the complete balance of a student’s unpaid institutional debt as lost revenue and reimburse themselves through their HEERF grants, including associated fees and penalties,” he wrote in response to a viewer’s question. “You don’t need student’s permission for discharging debt through lost revenue. Note, however, this must be done using institutional funds.”
He added: “However, when providing an emergency financial grant, institutions may not direct or control what students may use their emergency financial grants on. When providing grants to discharge student’s debt, the Department encourages institutions to include a disclaimer whereby students are expressly notified that they have the ability to decline emergency financial aid grant to pay off debts and instead may use the funds for any component of the student’s cost of attendance or for emergency costs that arise due to coronavirus, such as tuition.”