Colleges share lessons from HEERF spending

Simone Yalanty is an adult learner who earned a short-term certificate in Computer Information Systems – Software Development through Lorain County Community College's Fast Track program. (Photo: LCCC)

Federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) dollars created opportunities for colleges to not only help students during the pandemic, but also innovate and create long-term solutions.

The pandemic has had a “crippling effect” on communities of color and low-income and rural communities, said Michelle Asha Cooper, deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs and acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education in the U.S. Department of Education (ED). And Covid-19’s impact “won’t simply vanish as mask mandates do.” 

But HEERF is helping colleges emerge from the pandemic stronger, she said. 

Cooper spoke during a June 21 webinar hosted by Education Strategy Group (ESG) on the uses of federal pandemic relief funding to improve student success. ESG in May released a framework for postsecondary education stimulus investments.

Cooper was joined on the webinar by leaders from Amarillo College, Lorain County Community College and Pima Community College who discussed their strategic HEERF spending and what they learned.

Partnering in the community

In the early days of the pandemic, Ohio’s Lorain County Community College (LCCC) was able to act quickly to support students and connect them to resources because it understood its community. College leaders knew a great number of students – especially adult learners – worked in the service industry and were suddenly out of job.  

Marisa Vernon White, LCCC’s vice president for enrollment management and student services, relayed a story of woman who student who was laid off from restaurant. Distraught, she went directly to college’s Advocacy and Resource Center because she didn’t know where else she’d get what she needed.

The college took a step back to “look at our students as whole people” and “listen to the student voice” to better eliminate barriers and address gaps, Vernon-White said. Federal relief funds helped fill in those gaps that couldn’t be addressed by community supports.

Funding, along with community partnerships, also helped get people on the track to new employment.

LCCC had launched its Fast-Track programming right before pandemic. The for-credit, short-term training (typically about 16 weeks) is designed to lead to employment or an industry-recognized credential.

“When people were in crisis, there was panic about finding stable employment,” Vernon White said. The college worked with community partners to bring awareness to this job training opportunity. College staff were at places such as food distribution sites to enroll people in job training programs.

“People may see that as opportunistic to enroll students at these spots, but in our community, it’s the opposite,” said Vernon White. “If you’re accessing basic needs, education is one of those basic needs.”

College staff helped prospective students figure out what programs they qualified for and LCCC braided together funding to remove financial barriers.

LCCC supported 800 students in Fast-Track throughout pandemic.

Evaluating needs

Amarillo College (AC) in Texas also sought to get a better understanding of student needs.

“We knew before pandemic that our students were really struggling in the war zone of poverty,” AC President Russell Lowery-Hart said. “The pandemic deepened and exposed it.”

The college used FAFSA data and student self-assessments to identify students who were at financial risk. In the self-assessment, students evaluated their needs and scored themselves on the top barriers they faced (food, childcare, transportation, etc.). If their score reached a certain level, they automatically were connected to case managers and social workers at AC.

HEERF dollars were used to support those students.

“If we could get them financial support, we could not only help students survive the pandemic,” but also ensure the college maintained enrollment “that would let us survive the pandemic as well,” Lowery-Hart said.  

With the help of HEERF, retention and success rates increased, and in subsequent semesters, enrollment has been either flat or up.

Increasing access to learning

In addition to providing emergency funds to students, Pima Community College (PCC) in Arizona used funds to keep learning accessible.

The college invested in expanded access to virtual tutoring and student success coaching to help students navigate resources. PCC also forgave student debts. But there also was a lot of effort and funding behind increasing technology and devices for learners. Investments were made in campuses to make video-enabled and HyFlex learning available, and to make career technical education programs more accessible.

PCC was able to also provide financial assistance to adult learners and refugee students. The college leveraged the process already in place around emergency funds and expanded it to these overlooked populations.

HEERF “helped our learners persist,” said Laurie Kierstead-Joseph, assistant vice chancellor of adult basic education at PCC. Learners used funding to fix their cars or find better housing or pay off debts.

Lessons learned

Focusing on these students also “expanded our awareness of who our adult ed learners are,” Kierstead-Joseph said. For example, many are “unbanked,” meaning funds could not be provided through bank transfer. And PCC learned that, due to language barriers, it needed language line services to provide support in other languages.

In working to identify students who needed support, the colleges ran into a challenge: students often underreport their level of need.

At PCC, about 50% of adult learners will admit they’re low-income, but Kierstead-Joseph said that’s a low estimate.

The same is true at AC.

“Students were always under-evaluating the veracity of their needs,” Lowery-Hart said. If students are living in war zone of poverty, they “will always think that another person has more needs than they do.”

College staff spent a lot of time convincing students it was okay to accept support.

“We weren’t prepared for that,” Lowery-Hart said.

The college will continue having students complete self-assessments beyond the pandemic.

The panelists also stated that they could serve larger populations when funding wasn’t restricted to helping only Title IV-eligible students.

Sustaining good models

HEERF allowed colleges to test new models of support – models which benefited huge numbers of students. That can’t end when the HEERF dollars go away, Lowery-Hart said.

“We can’t afford not to continue these supports,” he said, though it may not be at quite the same level. Colleges will have to “change the ways we think about investments.”

Sustaining the support models means working with more closely with community partners and thinking differently about “how to braid together funding,” Vernon White of LCCC said. That will take an investment of time, she added.

PCC’s Kierstead-Joseph it’s critical to keep looking at how adult learners are supported, beyond HEERF and beyond the pandemic. They’re “an important constituency in community,” she said. “We can’t meet needs of community without these learners.”

Cooper said other college leaders should learn from these examples and replicate the successes at their own institutions. She added that ED is currently doing work around “lifting up evidence-based practices known to promote student success” and put students on the path to good jobs.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.