Financial aid offices spent months distributing emergency aid made available by federal coronavirus relief funds to help stave off unenrollment and support students’ basic needs. Now, about two years after the first round of funds were disbursed, aid offices are finding the reporting requirements imposed by the Department of Education (ED) to be more time consuming and onerous than they could have imagined.
Half a dozen aid directors contacted by NASFAA detailed just how demanding the work has become, as they finalize annual reports due in the coming weeks outlining how institutions spent Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) in 2021.
“Back in 2020 it was intended to be a relatively simple process with initially limited reporting requirements, and then the reporting requirements just began escalating,” said Bill Spiers, an FAAC® and the director of financial aid at Tallahassee Community College.
As part of the HEERF grant agreement, schools are required to submit annual and quarterly reports to document their spending and, most importantly, who the recipients are. For aid offices, the upcoming annual report will be the first to cover an entire calendar year, as the first HEERF annual report was due in early 2021 and covered from the beginning of the national emergency on March, 13, 2020, through December of that year.
Report submissions are due between April 11 and May 6, 2022 and cover activities funded in the 2021 calendar year.
The annual report includes how institutions determined which students were eligible for emergency grants and how amounts were determined, the payment method used for emergency grants to students, and withdrawal rates for students who received emergency grants, among other metrics.
Complicating this iteration of the annual report is how much guidance from ED changed between the three HEERF allocations, aid directors said, as it meant students could receive emergency aid even if they weren't eligible for Title IV aid, meaning they may not be in a financial aid office’s existing system or data.
"The guidance continued to change from HEERF one to two to three. And each time it seems that there was more flexibility on what we can do and so we widened the pool more each time,” said Andrew Hammontree, an FAAC® and the director of financial aid at Francis Tuttle Technology Center in Oklahoma. “I'm trying to figure out which students based on the guidance we had at the time, who were enrolled for that calendar year, which is different from a fiscal year for most of us.”
To track down the necessary student demographic data as well as various other elements to be included in the annual report, Anthony Morrone, an FAAC® and the director of financial aid at Nevada State College, said the key for his school has been collaboration across offices on campus.
Morrone said as soon as he knew he was tasked with compiling the information for the student portion of the annual report, he read through the requirements and developed a plan of who at his institution needed to do what, and by when.
“Staying in regular communication has been key,” Morrone said. “Figuring out who the team is and then making clear assignments with deadlines and frequent check-ins.”
In an effort to get everyone at his school on the same page, Morrone created and distributed a color-coded to-do list sent to various offices at his school, including the provost, budget office, human resources, and institutional research. The list included dates he needed their portion completed by so he could compile and submit it by the deadline.
Morrone and other aid directors underscored the fact that since institutions have known about the annual report for some time now, it’s important to have gotten an early start on it. Still, many aid directors noted the more cumbersome process this year compared to last.
While ED estimated the reporting burden for this collection of information to average about 40 hours for each institution, Spiers said the time commitment for him and his aid office is roughly double ED’s estimate.
“By the time I include everything that everybody has had to do and the number of meetings we've had, this big report has probably got about 80 hours of work put into it,” Spiers said.
NASFAA’s vice president of policy and federal relations Karen McCarthy noted ED upped the estimated burden from previous annual reporting requirements but it was still under what aid offices were experiencing.
“For year two of HEERF annual reporting, ED expanded the number of questions and increased the complexity of existing questions by adding required disaggregation. These changes prompted ED to double its burden estimate from the 2020 annual report,” she said. “Even with a doubled burden estimate, they estimate that it will take an institution only 12 hours to complete the form, which is an extreme underestimate from what we are hearing from institutions.”
Spiers said that some of the work he and his aid office did back in 2020 to stay organized and break down some of the student demographic data proved beneficial this time around. Hammontree also pointed to the work he did on the front end as part of the first annual report he conducted, helping set him up for success this year.
“I knew based on last year's annual report they were going to want to know at the end of the year were the students still enrolled or did they withdraw? I started gathering that information early,” Hammontree said. “Last year when I did this annual report, I had to find a lot of granular details at the last minute, so I was just rushing trying to get it done. This year I wanted to be ahead of that, so I spent some time at the end of last year just getting that information in place so I wouldn't have to look for it now.”
Amy Cable, an FAAC® and the executive director of student services for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said creating a streamlined process on how the schools would spend the student portion of their HEERF funds was key to being able to track the spending for reporting purposes. From there, Cable’s office provided individual schools within the system with report templates that the schools could use to plug their data into.
“We were able to have a reporting mechanism in place to find that information, but it's still now up to [individual schools] to report that up to the department and making sure that it's in the way that [ED] wants to see it,” Cable said.
Amid the increased workload, additional reporting elements, and all the other various tasks keeping financial aid offices continuously busy, aid directors kept in perspective the impact that HEERF funding has had on students over the course of more than two trying years.
“Ultimately, the goal was to try to help students, keep them enrolled, and move them to matriculate through their degree program. And I have been able to see where that impact has been felt by many of our students,” Spiers said. “So while I bemoaned the extra work, I’m thankful that so many of the students were able to benefit from the HEERF funds.”
Publication Date: 4/14/2022