Diving into how community colleges used HEERF money


Federal Covid funding to community colleges during the pandemic may have ended last summer, but a new study examines how two-year colleges used those funds and gauges areas of concern now that the money is gone.

The new study out today looked at six states and provides a deeper dive into how two-year colleges used Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) money and highlights trends, even shifts in trends over the three-year period. For example, community colleges initially focused their HEERF allotment on Covid-related campus safety, upgrading technology to help with the transition to distance learning and student aid. However, tapping the fund to recoup lost revenue from tuition and fees and to provide mental health services for students became more frequent in the following years.

Colleges’ main concern about the end of HEERF was that it would limit their ability to support students in an emergency, the report says, noting their top priority for future funding was additional student aid.

The study comes from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, which teamed with the Public Policy Institute of California to survey community colleges in California, Michigan, New York (SUNY colleges), Ohio, Tennessee and Texas as part of a network of research projects exploring ways to attract students who left during Covid back to college and to support their success.

Among the study’s key findings:

  • Colleges spent nearly all the HEERF funding they received. Overall, the two-year sector received $25 billion in HEERF dollars, with half for direct aid to students and half for institutional expenses. Over the three-year period, more than 1.6 million students received aid through HEERF.
  • The federal funding met a variety of student and institutional needs during the pandemic. Colleges reported few problems using the funds and generally felt that the aid was successful in helping with student and institutional hardships. The most frequently cited challenges related to using the funds were supply chain issues, students’ lack of response to offers of assistance, and inadequate guidance or guidance that came too late on allowable uses.
  • Colleges focused on keeping current students rather than trying to recruit new ones, using a variety of ways to support students in need. They zeroed in on students’ greatest needs, such as food and housing insecurity, childcare assistance and forgiving debt owed to the college.
  • Spending patterns suggest colleges had similar challenges during the pandemic and often prioritized the same objectives. Expenditures shifted over time in similar ways as colleges responded to evolving needs. Federal flexibility on use of the funds allowed colleges to pivot largely at their discretion when needed.
  • In comparing pre- and post-pandemic spending, HEERF money had the most effect on increasing support for technology hardware, high-speed internet and housing assistance. The study found that colleges used the federal funds to cover existing services and to begin new ones based on needs. For example, prior to the pandemic, most colleges already offered student aid, food pantries and health and mental health services, but fewer than one-third had services in place to provide technology hardware, high-speed internet and housing assistance.
  • Concerns when funding ends. Nine out of 10 colleges participating in the survey noted they had at least some concerns about HEERF expiring, with only 9% reporting they were not concerned. Among those with some concerns, three-fourths indicated that the end of HEERF would limit their ability to support students with financial or personal emergencies, followed by more than half (55%) saying they were worried about reductions in nonacademic supports, 40% citing a potential negative effect on enrollment, and one-third concerned about its effects on outcomes. Only a small percentage (15%) of colleges said they had concerns about reductions in instruction programs.

The study drew particular attention to the needs of rural and vocational/technical colleges, many of which had fewer resources prior to the pandemic and may need additional support. Rural colleges were less likely to report having received additional funding for pandemic recovery from sources other than HEERF, and they were more likely to have reported challenges with using HEERF dollars.

A June 26 webinar will cover the findings of the study.

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