COVID Relief Funds for CA Colleges are Expiring. Now What?

This article was initially revealed in CalMatters.

In March 2020, faculties have been on the verge of a disaster. Students have been dropping out en masse, and California’s public faculties and universities predicted they may lose billions of {dollars} throughout the 12 months.

Enter the federal authorities. In three installments over the next 12 months, Congress gave greater than $8 billion to California’s public faculties and universities as a part of a nationwide rescue plan. For the California State University system, the stimulus cash accounted for roughly 1 / 4 of its annual income.

Suddenly, faculties and universities have been scrambling to spend the cash as rapidly as attainable, regardless of restricted or inconsistent federal and state steering. Experts nervous the relief money was too much, too quick. Campuses didn’t take full benefit of the cash, in response to a 2021 state audit, and so they made choices that “prioritized students differently.”

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Now, as the ultimate deadline to spend the cash approaches this June, the growth is popping to bust. Most colleges have exhausted the cash, usually by means of main purchases, comparable to new laptops or tuition waivers for college students. But sustaining these applications could be expensive, and with the state dealing with a budget deficit this year, faculties say it’s not clear the place the cash will come from subsequent.

For college students, the growth was particularly short-lived. Over three years, California’s faculties used the federal cash to provide money to college students, usually lower than $1,000 every. For many struggling college students, it wasn’t sufficient.

How pandemic aid funds ended up in college students’ fingers

After graduating highschool in 2020, Jose Castillo enrolled at Merced College, however he didn’t keep lengthy. He wanted cash. Like many students his age, he dropped out in fall 2020 and began working 12-hour shifts, 5 days per week, at a meals packaging warehouse. As lengthy as he took a number of extra time shifts, he may make almost $2,000 a month.

He finally give up and re-enrolled on the group school, the place he’s finding out animal science. Along together with his common monetary help award, about $10,000 a 12 months, his school gave him an extra $2,000 over two semesters as a part of the pandemic aid cash. “I’m thankful for whatever I get,” he mentioned.

Castillo lives together with his dad and mom and youthful brother on a dairy farm, a few half hour from the school. While he isn’t working anymore, his dad and mom work 12-hour shifts on the farm. To assist, he drives his brother to high school and pays for fuel. He additionally pitches in on groceries.

Covering household bills, faculty charges and textbook prices, the cash “just goes away,” he mentioned. “Right away.”

Of the $8 billion in federal help, faculties have been required to provide about half on to college students. The cash went to the poorest college students, who usually spent it on each day requirements, comparable to housing, meals and transportation, in response to federal reports.

But the factors diverse: the identical scholar may qualify for COVID aid cash at one faculty however not one other. At Chico State and UC San Diego, for instance, college students utilized for help by submitting a easy kind that solely requested the sum of money they wanted. Students at different colleges, comparable to Cal State Long Beach State and Sonoma State, wanted to jot down explanations justifying their want and a few have been denied, in response to the 2021 state audit.

The different half of the $8 billion went to “institutional” wants, which faculties may outline broadly, comparable to tools or workers coaching. Compared to different federal aid, such because the Payment Protection Program for enterprise loans, the upper schooling aid program had low ranges of fraud, mentioned Kevin Cook, who helps lead the upper schooling middle on the Public Policy Institute of California. In 2022, the Institute launched a report on how California’s public faculties and universities used pandemic aid cash.

“It seems like these colleges, when given extra funds, were spending it on areas that were needed,” Cook mentioned. “They didn’t build a new football field. They spent it on things that would make the campus safer or help students stay enrolled.”

Missing out on thousands and thousands

Still, the federal aid program was removed from excellent. The federal authorities bypassed the state and issued stimulus cash immediately to high schools and universities, permitting colleges to spend the cash rapidly however with comparatively little oversight.

In their reporting, colleges usually used obscure phrases to explain how, precisely, they spent the cash they obtained for institutional use. UCLA reported placing the overwhelming majority of institutional funds in direction of recuperating “lost revenue” from tuition and dorms when college students stopped attending. The college declined to specify what they used that income for.

Many group faculties have been equally obscure, although not all. At Yuba College, an hour north of Sacramento, directors determined to provide college students extra money through the use of the cash designated for institutional wants. Because of low vaccination charges throughout the county, additionally they gave out almost $700,000 price of Amazon reward playing cards as incentives for college students to get vaccinated. In East San Jose, Evergreen Valley College put most of its institutional wants {dollars} towards new expertise, tuition reductions and waivers for college students who had collected fines and charges.

Often these bills include ongoing prices that the one-time federal funding can’t cowl. At Evergreen Valley College, Vice President of Administrative Services Andrea Alexander has been scaling again how usually departments get expertise upgrades whereas looking for different funds to pay for future upkeep. She mentioned the varsity will possible ask voters for a bond within the subsequent 5 years to cowl the continued price of expertise. The bond may even pay for cybersecurity upgrades, which are more and more mandatory as community colleges try to stem an onslaught of financial aid fraud.

Amid the flurry of federal funding, the audit discovered that many public faculties and universities had uncared for to use for grants they have been possible eligible for. Following the audit’s suggestion, the UC system discovered almost $74 million in bills that schools may invoice to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in response to Stett Holbrook, a spokesperson for the president’s workplace. The identical company authorised just over $3 million in reimbursements from the Cal State system, with almost $20 million in bills nonetheless pending evaluation.

A spokesperson for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, Paul Feist, mentioned it has not issued any formal steering to colleges about requesting such reimbursements and that it “does not monitor what claims, if any, districts made to FEMA.”

‘I wouldn’t say it lasted lengthy’

On a per-student foundation, group faculties obtained much less cash than UC or CSU campuses, though group faculties educate the vast majority of low-income college students within the state. That’s as a result of the federal authorities initially prioritized giving cash to colleges with the next proportion of full-time college students and to colleges that had extra Pell Grant recipients.

Federal Pell Grants go on to low-income college students. Though many group school college students qualify, they rarely apply for the money or receive it. Community school college students are additionally extra prone to attend part-time, since many work.

Initially, some group school college students didn’t qualify for any help. In January 2022, Mikala Hutchinson started taking lessons at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, north of San Diego. She was taking excessive school-level lessons since she didn’t have a highschool diploma or equal.

For many years, grownup college students and not using a highschool diploma or equal have been neglected of the monetary help system, even when they qualify. When the federal authorities first introduced the COVID-19 aid grants, it uncared for to specify whether or not college students like Hutchinson have been eligible.

Since enrolling, Hutchinson mentioned navigating monetary help has been “a massive headache.” It wasn’t till May 2022, when she was taking college-level lessons, that she acquired any monetary help from MiraCosta College. Over the course of a 12 months, she obtained simply over $2,000 in COVID-relief funds, all of which she put in direction of youngster care.

Hutchinson has two younger youngsters. That 12 months, she paid greater than $20,000 in youngster care. The cash “helped in the beginning for sure,” she mentioned, “ but I wouldn’t say it lasted long.”

This story was initially revealed on CalIssues.

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