Skip to main content

With $200,000 in federal pandemic relief funds, the state college hired a case manager and created a program to help students with basic needs such as food and shelter in 2022. As the federal aid dried up, the board of trustees approved a student activities fee that, alongside grants and institutional dollars, now provides permanent funding for the initiative.

“We couldn’t give up on this program,” Stritikus said. “It has had a material impact on the lives of our students, so we’re committed to seeing it through.”

Colleges and universities have spent or earmarked every dollar Congress provided them to withstand the public health crisis, according to the Education Department. Institutions have used the $76 billion to pivot to online classes, stave off steep financial losses, provide mental health services, clear past-due tuition balances and offer emergency aid for students facing housing, employment and food insecurities.

Even though the federal support has come to an end, the lasting impact of some projects seeded with the money is evident.

Take for instance a textbook program started at North Carolina A&T State University. The historically Black university in Greensboro used a portion of the $188 million it received from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund to provide free textbooks to students for the past two academic years. The university had noticed students were delaying or forgoing the purchase of materials for their classes and wanted to lift the burden, said Robert Pompey Jr., vice chancellor for business and finance at North Carolina A&T. 

Since the university could not afford to absorb the cost in perpetuity, it struck an agreement with its bookstore provider to create a discount program. Beginning this fall semester, students now pay a flat textbook rental fee of $18.75 per credit hour. A student taking 10 credit hours, for instance, would incur a fee of $187.50. This covers all required course materials in all subject matters.

Pompey said students now pay up to half as much as they would have to purchase their books. More than 90 percent of the 13,883 students at North Carolina A&T participated in the program this semester, he said.

“We wanted to implement initiatives that would impact as many students as we could and lower the cost of attendance,” Pompey said. “These were extremely tough times. I’m proud that we were able to serve our students and continue to provide that support.”

North Carolina A&T, like many schools, stretched every dollar it received from the federal government. It also used some money to provide students with iPads, implement a robot food delivery service and cover the costs of summer courses for all students for the past three years.

The latest annual report on the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund issued in February shows that the 4,608 colleges awarded money largely used their allocations to boost student retention and degree completion, tackle enrollment declines, and reengage students who stopped attending courses during the public health crisis.

More than 1,400 schools spent nearly $1.5 billion to discharge unpaid student balances. Institutions also distributed $19.5 billion in emergency aid to 12.7 million students in need of help with child care, food or housing.

In addition to the covid-funded efforts, Fort Lewis used other federal money to expand its student-run food pantry. The pantry, dubbed the Grub Hub, has been around since 2010 but moved into a larger space with refrigeration in 2021. The expansion was made possible through Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), who secured grant funding to support agriculture and food security in the state.

Fort Lewis launched a rapid rehousing program in 2022 using covid money, with a goal of helping students who needed housing find a place to stay within 30 days. It has helped 111 students in the past year with emergency housing at hotels and financial assistance for moving, rent and utilities. The average award totals $1,596, according to the college. To keep vulnerable students on track, Fort Lewis’s case manager helps coordinate counseling and career services once they are settled.

The need for housing assistance didn’t come as much of a shock because a 2019 Fort Lewis survey found that nearly 30 percent of students who responded had experienced homelessness in the past two years.

“We always knew,” Fort Lewis President Stritikus said of the housing instability on campus. “But the pandemic exacerbated the problem and accelerated our commitment to solving it.”

In a similar vein, the pandemic heightened and revealed the depths of mental health needs on college campuses. When the American Council on Education surveyed college presidents in September 2021, 73 percent of respondents said the mental health of students was a pressing concern, up from 41 percent in April 2020. At least 100 colleges used their covid relief funding in 2021 to support mental health on campus, according to the Education Department.

Connecticut State Colleges and Universities used covid dollars to extend telehealth services to students at its 12 community colleges in 2021. It worked with TimelyCare, which offers virtual care from licensed counselors and teamed with more than 300 campuses nationwide to provide around-the-clock mental health services to students. Many of those colleges, according to the company, relied on federal pandemic aid to stand up their programs.

“We’ve been surveying our students since the beginning of the pandemic, and what stood out was mental health,” said John Maduko, president of Connecticut State Community College. “Everything is overwhelming in terms of life and school and family and work. So when you hear those stories, when you see it in our students, there is a responsibility to do something.”

Whereas the two-year adoption rate for most schools that use TimelyCare is around 6 percent of the student body, it’s nearly 9 percent at the Connecticut community colleges, according to Meredith Yuhas, Connecticut State Community College’s director of mental health and wellness.

She said the service is an extension of the brick-and-mortar counseling centers but allows students access to care whenever they need it. Sixty-nine percent of students who signed up for the service, she said, used it between the hours of 5 p.m. and 9 a.m.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) provided $659,223 for the initial two-year contract for the telehealth service through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, another pot of pandemic funding created by Congress. Now that the funding has expired, Maduko is using institutional dollars to renew for another two-year term.

“It was a no-brainer to make that institutional investment. The numbers speak for themselves,” Maduko said. “The mental health challenges and insecurities had already existed. Covid-19 exacerbated them but also forced higher education, higher education leaders and practitioners to pay closer attention. We cannot simply ignore what our students are facing.”


Article courtesy of Washington Post.