For Higher Education, CARES Act Emergency Grants Come With Lessons Learned

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As a vast majority of the funds allocated in the latest stimulus package have been disbursed to institutions and students, the higher education community has its sights set on the next federal stimulus package and is hoping both lawmakers and the Department of Education (ED) learn from some of the obstacles that slowed implementation of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Many are pinning their hopes on the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which passed the House in May on a largely party line vote but has yet to be formally taken up in the GOP-controlled Senate, where it is almost certainly going to undergo significant revisions if it has any chance of passing.

Beyond the additional funding that the higher education community has consistently clamored for — which will very likely be the last chance for help from the federal government before the fall semester begins — many believe there are ways to improve the allocation and delivery of assistance to students.

For starters, the Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., developed an alternative model formula for determining how much federal assistance institutions receive, after the CARES Act was criticized for weighting full-time enrollment and disproportionately allocating funds to private institutions over public institutions.

To that end, the HEROES Act would increase the funding for public institutions and adjust the funding formula for how most of the money earmarked for higher education would be distributed to institutions. The new relief package reworks the formula used to distribute the proposed $27 billion that would go to public institutions through state governors and the $7 billion that would go directly to private nonprofit institutions to focus more on total headcount and Pell Grant enrollment.

As for the students, Evan Weissman, a senior associate at MDRC focusing on postsecondary education policy, says institutions can improve their communication regarding how they inform their student body of the availability of emergency aid grants and how students can access the funds.

Weissman said it is important for institutions to spread the load for communicating to students across various offices and departments, not just leaving the burden on the financial aid office or communications department.

“Faculty should know about the availability of aid and they [should be] talking to their students about it because often students really don't talk to anyone except for their favorite professor,” he said.

Institutions can look to collaborate across offices to create a plan of attack, Weissman added — something that is more realistic to achieve now, with additional time to create clear goals and strategies and without the initial chaos and urgency at the outset of the pandemic.

Furthermore, Weissman noted that institutions should inform their students of the wide range of allowable uses of the funds, saying he has heard instances of students not wanting to apply for or accept emergency aid because they felt they could still afford their tuition and wanted the funds to be used by other students.

“The way that financial aid is offered to students, just the wording around it, will change how likely they are to accept it,” he said.

At Michigan State University (MSU), where Val Meyers serves as the associate director in the Office of Financial Aid, disbursing emergency aid grants to students was a learning process, with technology headaches and a few false starts due to multiple rounds of guidance from ED that changed the eligibility criteria and ultimately slowed the process.

MSU used an application for students to receive the aid, which Meyers referred to as a “piecemeal application process” since the technology team had to create an entirely new application, complete with eligibility questions, that was posted to the student portal. She added that if there is another federal relief package that earmarks funding for institutions, they will be better prepared, noting that students are also now aware that they may qualify for funding.

“If there's another round, we certainly know that we're going to have students waiting in line to complete those applications again,” she said.

She added that email communication with students has been hit-or-miss.

“That's part of the problem is that you assume students read everything that's emailed to them,” she said. “They are supposed to use their MSU email to follow what's going on, but I think a lot of them either forward it or they filter … but they seem to notice the stuff about money.”

A member institution told NASFAA they did not use an application process and instead gave small amounts to all students who were eligible. The institution, a small graduate medical school, said it intends to keep the same messaging and strategies it used for CARES Act emergency grant funding should another federal relief package be passed.

Sara Lambie, the associate director of online student financial services at Indiana University, said the institution’s strategy for disbursing aid to students the next time around will depend entirely on how much they are able to automate the awarding process, which is tied to guidance from ED.

“The more clarity we have upfront on which students are eligible, the faster we’ll be able to get the money out the door,” she said. “We would have to be extra diligent about managing expectations around the awarding timeframe.”

While clarity regarding what could be contained in the next federal relief package may be in low supply at the moment, aid offices are using the knowledge they gathered from the CARES Act rollout to plan for what’s next.

Meyers said with MSU’s application already created — save for some changes depending on eligibility criteria and total aid amount — they will be ready with messaging coming from both the president’s office and aid office to notify students.

Like many institutions, Meyers and her office don’t have the staff to make outgoing calls to students, but does try to reach them in several different ways, from emails and follow-ups to some social media posts and messaging that appears when students sign into their online portal.

Overall, Meyers said she expects the process to be much smoother the second time around.

“We at least know what questions to ask now, we know what to look for, what might be a stumbling block,” she said. “That's just inherent in the process. You're going to have Congress pass something that's really at the 50,000 foot level, and then [ED] takes it maybe down to 15,000. And then when you get down to the ground where the aid offices are, that's when you find out, ‘Hey, look, there's all these things that we don't know.’”


Publication Date: 7/21/2020

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