In a hearing centered around reopening institutions of higher education, a group of higher education panelists provided the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee with insights as to how campuses have utilized congressionally approved aid and how they are approaching the fall semester.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the committee, highlighted how pandemic relief funds have enabled her state to expand initiatives like the Seattle Promise Program, providing students with tuition-free community college, and offer students more affordable options in pursuing higher education.
“We have a lot of work to do to make sure every student has the opportunity to achieve a higher education in a safe environment free from debt,” Murray said.
In her questioning Murray also sought insight into how institutions utilized funds provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the American Rescue Plan Act.
NASFAA member Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, vice provost of enrollment management at the University of California, said that those packages which provided institutions with Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) funds allowed students to continue their education and prevented the pandemic from derailing their dreams of pursuing a college degree. She also stressed that the needs of students will not diminish when the pandemic ends.
“HEERF funds were indeed a lifeline,” Copeland-Morgan said. “Without HEERF funds the post-pandemic COVID future would be extremely challenging for higher education institutions. HEERF funds enabled students to continue their education, graduate on time and work towards their dream of a college degree.”
Those emergency funds provided Anthony Harris, a student at Baldwin Wallace University, access to necessary resources to continue his higher education coursework.
“Personally I used the funding to get books and for internet access, other campuswide uses include transportation, food, tuition and savings,” Harris said of his experiences as well as other students' usage of funds. “Even as the next disbursement of CARES Act funding was released, students were continuing to find creative ways to continue attending school at all costs.”
In the wake of the pandemic many students have struggled to meet their basic needs, which has made participation in higher education all the more challenging.
Murray sought to see how the school’s were responding to the financial harm students have had to endure and cited NASFAA’s recent survey on institutions reporting an increase in professional judgement (PJ) requests as an indicator of the need.
“The first appeals we got were all about technology,” Copeland-Morgan said. “We spent a lot of money paying for computers and internet service, giving out [mobile Wi-Fi hotspots] and other kinds of technology.”
Copeland-Morgan also said that food insecurity has been a huge problem that was further exacerbated by the pandemic.
“These students were struggling prior to COVID-19 and the funds that we received could not have been more timely across the University of California system,” Copeland-Morgan said. “My colleagues who oversee financial aid, we all got together and got those funds out quickly so that students would not drop out of college because that presents another problem should they drop out and stay out.”
Sen. Richard Burr (R-S.C.), who serves as ranking member, largely focused his questions on vaccination efforts stressing that completing routine vaccinations for education is nothing new.
“It is not unreasonable for us to consider whether we require it in higher education,” Burr said of students receiving COVID-19 vaccines before the start of the fall semester.
Burr also expressed concern over a lack of accountability for the sums of funds provided to institutions of higher education and argued that more focus needed to be spent on K-12 programs.
The hearing served as a continuation of the conversation about how school’s will aim to return to normal operations and address the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“If we truly want to help students succeed, we have to do more than simply return to normal,” Murray said. “Because even before this pandemic, normal’s price tag was far too expensive and out of reach for too many students.”
Publication Date: 6/18/2021