Two House Education and Labor subcommittees held a joint hearing Wednesday to learn how K-12 and postsecondary institutions are using specific federal funds to help address challenges brought on by the Covid pandemic.
The Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee and the Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee heard from the U.S. Education Department’s (ED) Deputy Secretary Cindy Martin and Under Secretary James Kvaal. Both department officials and Democrats on the subcommittees touted the myriad ways the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) has served as a lifeline for students, higher education institutions and K-12 schools.
HEERF “has met the emergency needs and basic living expenses of struggling students. It has helped students stay enrolled by removing financial obstacles and meeting their new technology needs. It helped colleges reduce the damaging consequences of the pandemic by meeting public health needs, keeping faculty and staff employed, and — in some cases — possibly keeping the colleges themselves operating,” Kvaal said in his written testimony.
Kvaal also gave examples of how colleges, including community colleges, have used the funds:
- San Joaquin Delta College in California provided $6 million in emergency aid to its lowest-income students.
- Amarillo College in Texas hired case managers and social workers to connect students with basic needs supports on campus and in their communities.
- City Colleges of Chicago launched a program that supports students returning to school and provides short-term credentials to students at no cost.
- Compton College in California used the funds to help displaced workers and students who need fewer than 20 units to complete a credential.
Kvaal noted he recently received a letter from Jackson College President Daniel Phelan who wrote that the funds were used at his Michigan college to help students with tuition and fees, housing, food, course materials, medical and mental health care, and childcare.
Kvaal also cited findings of a recent American Council on Education survey of college presidents about how their institutions have used HEERF money. Among the 400 participating colleges and universities, which included community colleges:
- 91% provided emergency scholarships to students at risk of dropping out.
- 88% purchased Covid tests, conducted health screening and met other urgent healthcare needs.
- 80% provided students with electronic devices and Internet access, which helped them stay enrolled.
- 70% continued to employee faculty, staff and other employees otherwise at risk of losing their jobs.
- 18% that were at risk of closing were able to continue to operate.
Despite the $76 billion in HEERF, colleges and universities still face challenges in budget shortfalls due to continued enrollment decreases, threats of state budget cuts and less revenue from housing, food services and other operations, Kvaal said. Community colleges and historically Black colleges and universities were already experiencing historical funding inequities prior to the pandemic, he noted.
“Students and institutions are still in survival mode, struggling to meet basic needs and sustain regular operations,” Kvaal said.
Pushback from GOP
Democrats are using the highlights of HEERF, coupled with the momentum of the infrastructure legislation signed by President Joe Biden this week, to help gather support for the president’s Build Back Better legislation. Republicans at the hearing pushed back on some aspects of HEERF. For example, they questioned why much of the funding remains unspent and whether colleges and universities needed that much federal help. As of last week, colleges have spent more than half of their available total HEERF funds — 65% of funds dedicated to help students and 54% of funds for colleges’ use, according to the department. GOP lawmakers asked whether funds were going toward “administrative bloat” rather than helping to improve student outcomes, noting that it is taking many students much longer to complete their credentials.
Kvaal replied that the funds have spending deadlines, but colleges are using the funds prudently and often have plans for remaining HEERF funds. For example, some colleges have committed to retain staff for the full academic year, but they only draw down federal funds when needed to make payroll, he said.
When asked how ED is overseeing that HEERF money is being used on allowable activities, Kvaal said the department has implemented various methods to ensure that, including prioritized monitoring and audits of certain institutions that have a higher chance of compliance risks.
Republicans at the hearing also peppered the ED officials with questions not related to HEERF, such as free speech on college campuses, reporting requirements on gifts and donations from foreign entities, critical race theory and transgender issues.