We often hear that federal funding in the early stages of the pandemic was great, but now all the funding is gone or the deadline has passed. However, the fact is that there are still millions of federal funding dollars available for higher education institutions to use today.For example, The American Rescue Plan that was released in March 2021 contains more funding for higher education than double what the first two COVID-19 relief packages allocated to higher education (University Business, May 13, 2021). With the most recent round of funding available through May 2022, ensuring that your eLearning programs are utilizing this funding in an effective way is important to help gain success within your institution.
So, how much funding is available and how can your eLearning program benefit from this federal funding? Check out this pre-recorded webinar to learn more about the federal funding available and ideas on how your institution can utilize it.
This webinar includes the following panelists:
- Dr. Mac Adkins – Founder and Chief Academic Officer of SmarterServices
- Dr. Patric Lane – VP of Policy Analysis and Research at WICHE/WCET
- Shantee Siebuhr – Guided Pathways Specialist at Weatherford College
Don’t want to watch the webinar video? No problem! Check out the webinar recap below for more information.
Please note: What follows is not meant to be specific legal advice and ultimately any specific questions about eligibility, allowable uses, etc. should be worked through with your institution’s counsel and the department's grant managers.
Student Support in the COVID-19 Era: Making Sense of Federal Funding Opportunities
During his section, Dr. Patrick Lane, VP of Policy Analysis and Research at WICHE/WCET talked through the COVID-19 support legislation and discussed how it may be applicable to institutions. In the next several sections, you'll find Dr. Lane's advice and guidance on topics like the major funding bills that were passed, the federal dollars available in your state/institution, and allowable and unallowable uses of the federal funding available.
To kick things off, Dr. Lane first reviewed an overview of the three major bills that provided substantial direct and indirect funding to higher education institutions. They included the following:
- Coronavirus Aid, Relief, Economic Security (CARES) Act
- Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA)
- American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)
Coronavirus Aid, Relief, Economic Security (CARES) Act
As a reminder, the CARES Act was the initial legislation that passed in March 2020, just as the pandemic was really picking up steam. The bill totaled a little more than $2 trillion. Only $14 billion of that was allocated directly to higher education through “HEERF” or the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. The bill provided $14 billion to that fund with an allocation formula that relies on full-time equivalent enrollments with heavy waiting on PELL eligible students.
There are also other buckets of funding worth knowing about like the GEER fund (Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund). In particular, that's essentially a block grant to be used at the governor's discretion to help drive the response of the education sector to the COVID-19 pandemic. For this legislation, the GEER fund amounted to about $3 billion allocated generally based on population numbers of school-age students and poverty levels.
So of that big allocation to HEERF, institutions are required to use at least 50% of that funding for emergency student grants with relatively few strings attached. Initially, eligibility was limited to those students who are eligible for federal financial aid and excluding those enrolled in exclusively online programs.
This was all done initially through informal guidance issued by the Department well after the enactment of the law and quickly challenged in a handful of jurisdictions around the country to broaden that eligibility and in most of those cases, that made it to the conclusion the Department did not prevail, so there was a weird situation where eligibility differed depending on where you lived.
After the change in presidential administrations, an interim rule issued by the Department was replaced with a final rule that broadened eligibility essentially to any student enrolled at or after the declaration of a national emergency.
There are some fairly general and broad uses and coupled with the fungibility of funding that may allow institutions a lot of flexibility to use the money and creative ways to help support students.
The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA)
After the CARES Act, President Trump signed broader legislation containing the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA). It provides almost $23 billion to higher education through the HEERF. This bucket is known officially as HEERF II, and it also contained a GEER fund that's the governor's discretionary fund to about $1.3 billion.
The allocation formula here tilted a little bit to allow institutions to spend more on institutional expenses and less on direct student aid. The bill required institutions to spend at least as much of this allocation on direct student aid as it spends on emergency student grants under the CARES Act, but given that the bill was about 60% bigger, you can see, essentially that extra money was allowed to be spent for institutional needs.
The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA or HERF III)
The last and most recent is the American Rescue Plan Act. This was another piece of legislation in the $2 trillion neighborhood enacted by congress and signed by President Biden in March 2021.
This legislation allocated almost $40 billion directly to higher ed (More than the other two pieces of legislation combined). There is no GEER fund in this pot of funding, but there was a significant state, territory, tribal, and local government funding in the amount of $350 billion. It was not earmarked for education, but certainly, as some states and other localities are looking to spend that money, some of it is making its way into the education sector. The uses of this fund are controlled through the Department of Treasury, rather than the Department of Education.
There are still Federal Dollars to Spend
To sum things up, this is a whole lot of money. For context, the annual federal spending on PELL grants run to about $30 billion per year. We are well north of that in a very short period of time.
It's also really important to remember the context of when this all came out and when the pieces of legislation were enacted. If you think back to March and April of 2020 when the CARES Act was enacted, things were crazy, to say the least. Institutions were setting up remote programs on the fly, and trying to get the necessary hardware and software into the hands of students, faculty, and staff. And all this came as we learned to focus on a new, important budget category in higher ed: the auxiliary revenue.
Now, as we fast forward to CRRSAA and ARPA, there's more recognition that we somewhat successfully, weathered the short-term issues and were able to move a massive number of courses online to provide a reasonable quality of education.
But the pandemic, even with successful vaccination rollouts, is going to have long-term and lasting impacts on higher education and our student populations. So now we get a chance to take a breath and assess where students and institutions really need support, how the pandemic impacted different groups and their pursuit of higher education, and how best we might be able to target that money.
The good news is that both CRRSAA and ARPA are still relatively flexible. The money is there to continue to support different types of activities in response to the pandemic.
What we've seen and heard across the West is that institutions and state governments are approaching things in very different ways. Some states have established commissions to issue binding plans on the distribution of federal dollars allocated to states. While others are convenient cabinet-level working groups to develop plans. And in other places, state legislatures are weighing in very directly with legislation dictating where things should be spent.
Allowable Uses of Available Federal Funding
The following provisions are drawn from the Department of Education and frequently asked questions related to ARPA. In many ways, this applies to the other bills, because it governs the use of her and much of the language is identical to earlier guidance, but that's a starting point for our discussion. And it's important to remember that ARPA has a lot of money directed to higher ed and its bottom line.
What about the deadlines for using funds for each of the programs? Essentially, each grant has given institutions and other grantees in the higher ed universe one year to spend the money, but there's an important catch. And that is that the clock resets with each additional funding program. So if you received your first CARES Act allocation in April of 2020, that would give you a deadline of April of 2021, to use that money. However, that deadline gets extended when you receive the CRRSAA or ARPA money.
The Department also made it clear that there are no-cost extensions that will be in play for all of these programs. That catch is contained in the ARPA III guidance.
So if there's one piece of advice with using these grants, it's to take care of your emergency-related things, but then to take a breath and figure out the best course of action for your students in your institution. There is not necessarily a big rush to spend the money down.
The bullets below provide general information on how the funds are to be used:
All HEERF Funds:
- Defraying expenses associated with coronavirus (including lost revenue, reimbursement for expenses already incurred, technology costs and associated with a transition to distance education, faculty and staff trainings, and payroll).
- Making additional emergency financial aid grants to students.
- No “supplement not supplant” language.
ARPA Only – Required uses include:
- Implement evidence-based practices to monitor and suppress coronavirus in accordance with public health guidelines.
- Conduct direct outreach to financial aid applicants about the opportunity to receive a financial aid adjustment due to the recent unemployment of a family member or independent student, or other circumstances, described in the section 479A of the HEA.
Other guidance for allowable uses that Dr. Lane provided included uses “to support additional academic or mental health support systems that will help students overcome additional barriers that have arisen as a result of coronavirus that may otherwise prevent them from completing their education.”
Anything that would help students in that vein certainly seems to us to be an allowable expense. You can view more information about this on this FAQ document.
Overall, within these broad use categories, it's possible to see how funding can support eLearning programs.
Unallowable Uses of Available Federal Funding
Next, Dr. Lane turned to unallowable expenses. Here, you have the usual mix of things included in most federal grants. But one thing explicitly called out is anything that includes recruiting or marketing. However, some limited expenses for re-engaging students who dropped out are allowed.
Other unallowable uses include:
- Capital outlays for athletics or sectarian instruction/religious worship
- Senior administration dollars
- Real estate purchases
- Plus traditional prohibitions: lobbying, personal use, bad debts, etc.
Overall, if you take all this information in totality, you can see the key is really identifying how additional expenditure supporting students through eLearning is really a response to the pandemic and I think there's a very strong case to be made for that.
How Much Money Your State/Institution Has
To learn how much federal funding dollars your state has, Dr. Lane explained that the government has a website that is geared towards tracking spending and available funds.
As a caveat, their information is populated by federal reports filed by states and institutions, so it may not be exactly up to date. But by looking up your state, you can see how much money is remaining to be spent.
Examples of the Federal Funds Used at Weatherford College
In the webinar, Shantee Siebuhr, Guided Pathways Specialist at Weatherford College was able to share her experience of how the university utilized federal funds to help their students during an online orientation program. The following information is what she went over in her section of the webinar.
In March of 2020, Weatherford College had an active task force working on redesigning their new student orientation to include full-day, in-person experiences focused on their students. However, a few weeks after getting their new student orientation program approved, Weatherford college went completely remote due to the pandemic. After months of planning their in-person orientation, they then needed to switch directions to a virtual style.
Upon looking to easily shift their plans, they partnered with Innovative Educators for resources and tools that could supplement a new, online orientation process.
With Weatherford College's guided pathways leadership team and the help of Innovative Educators, they started meeting regularly about all things student success, and how their students could best navigate through online orientation.
Overall, Weatherford wanted to make sure that their students still felt connected to the college and what they were hoping to accomplish. Orientation is just a very small part of the academic journey, but for some, especially for those that get to experience it in person, orientation is where you get pumped. Orientation is where you learn about your new school and how it can help you be successful and we didn't want to lose that momentum in that dynamic. They wanted a way they could embody this same feeling online.
By partnering with Innovative Educators, their online orientation was built and launched in 28 days. To view their online student orientation platform, check out the section of the webinar video below.
Within their online orientation, there were multiple different modules built to help tailor their information to their students. Innovative Educators put together a college highlight list of different places on campus to help keep students connected to the area. Because their students weren't in person, this helped give them a personal connection to the college. In addition to this, they also created virtual campus tours.
Along with that, Weatherford introduced their staff on their new, online student orientation platform by working in images, information about them, their roles, and a fun fact about the person. Doing this gave their students an option to connect with their staff and faculty as they found their way through online orientation.
In addition to learning about the staff, their platform talked about their academic communities so that students could see what they could study and how they could study it.
“One thing that we did not anticipate with this online orientation, was it became so much more than just an orientation, it became more than just a way for them to connect to the college. It became an actual resource that we found students using time and time again,” explained Siebuhr.
Want to learn more? Watch the rest of the webinar!
If you like to learn more information, tips, and advice about how your eLearning program can benefit from the recently released federal funding, click here to watch the full webinar!
We also encourage you to check out our free Federal Funding eLearning Resource Guide for a full list of the top resources and information relating to the CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan Act, the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, and other emergency grants to help your institution utilize the funds available.
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Please note: This blog is not meant to be specific legal advice and ultimately any specific questions about eligibility, allowable uses, etc. should be worked through with your institution’s counsel and the department's grant managers.