Since the pandemic hit in earnest in March 2020, the federal government has responded with three relief packages supporting higher education – a total combined $75 billion in funding for students and institutions:
- $14 Billion through the CARES Act (Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund I),
- $21 Billion through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act “CRRSAA” (HEERF II), and
- $40 Billion through the American Rescue Plan (HEERF III)
While some of the specific details and guidance are still pending, these funds are broadly being used for financial aid grants, student support and technology costs associated with a transition to distance education. Also for lost revenue, reimbursement and expenses already incurred.
Higher Education Emergency Funding
Here is a summary of the three major aid initiatives:
American Rescue Plan
The American Rescue Plan (ARP), signed into law on March 11, 2021, included $40 billion for higher education, available through September 30, 2023, for higher education institutions and students, using the same Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) model established in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act “CRRSAA”
CRRSAA was signed into law on December 27, 2020, and included $21 billion for higher education. According to NASFAA, the Act “allows for more expansive uses of funds than the CARES Act, for both the student share and the institutional share.”
On the institutional side, Section 314(c)(2) allows an institution to spend its CRRSAA funds on student support activities authorized by the HEA, where those student support activities address needs related to the coronavirus.
According to DOE guidance, (a)(1) institutional funds may be used to support the transition to virtual activities, purchase PPE, or support other innovative learning methods that would allow an institution to engage in student support activities authorized under the HEA during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CARES Act was signed into law March 31, 2020. It provided nearly $14 billion allocated to higher education in an Emergency Stabilization Fund. Fifty percent of the $14 billion in emergency funds received by institutions were reserved for students in the form of emergency financial aid grants for expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus.
Supporting the “Transition to Distance Learning and Virtual Student Support”
Over the past year, colleges have done a herculean job navigating through countless challenges brought on by the pandemic, such as: the immediate and unprecedented shift to distance learning, enrollment disruptions, uncertain state funding, administration of student emergency aid, contact tracing, efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus, virtual student support services, and supporting student and staff mental health needs, among many others.
As colleges and universities forge ahead, they are learning from their experiences and implementing technologies that support new models of educational delivery and student support, while also providing a framework to support the institution in the event of another pandemic in the years ahead. Institutions have learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons from this experience and are determined not to be caught off guard in the future with a similar emergency.
A number of institutions have used HEERF funds to purchase or upgrade AI Chatbots, Live Chat, Videos, and Text Campaigns to provide students with virtual 24/7/365 support. These investments are important to support enrollment & retention efforts. They are providing immediate support during the pandemic and will continue to serve critical needs after the pandemic subsides.
Over the past year, the federal government has stepped in with three emergency relief bills to support higher education. These funds have provided invaluable support to students in the form of direct emergency grants. In addition, institutions have received billions of dollars to bridge the gap from enrollment disruptions, lost revenue, declines in state funding and costs associated with responding to the virus on campus, as well as the technology costs associated with the transition to distance learning and providing virtual student support.
The investments colleges are making today in virtual student support and distance learning will help in both the short-run and the long-run. If there is another pandemic or similar emergency in the years ahead, institutions will have the necessary technology resources and tools in place as part of their standard operating procedures, that will help them to endure such a challenge.