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$275M in CARES funds allocated to Alabama higher education

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama colleges and universities are getting about $275 million directly from the federal government to help mitigate the impacts of the coronavirus on them and at least some of their students. 

Seventy public and private colleges and universities, and a handful of cosmetology schools, were eligible for the funding under the federal CARES Act enacted in March. The money was doled out under three categories, the largest being a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. It totaled nearly $200 million, according to information from the Alabama Department of Finance. At least half was to be distributed to students with financial needs. The other half can be spent by institutions for COVID-related costs.

“Campuses were impacted in different ways and thus will spend the CARES Act funds differently,” Alabama Commission on Higher Education Executive Director Jim Purcell told Alabama Daily News.

The health pandemic closed many campuses in March, sending classes online and students home for the remainder of the semester. In this summer semester, most learning continues to be done by distance. 

About $73 million was available to historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions. The smallest allocation was for a handful of schools with “unmet needs.” 

The CARES Act sent a total of more than $14 billion to higher education nationwide. 

Students’ needs

The U.S. Department of Education said the student aid portion of the CARES funding is for “institutions to provide emergency financial aid grants to students whose lives have been disrupted, many of whom are facing financial challenges and struggling to make ends meet.”

How that money is distributed and the amounts are up to each institution, but federal guidelines said international and undocumented students were not eligible for the grants. Many Alabama institutions used the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, FAFSA, to help determine eligibility and aid amounts.

Some have already allocated the funding.

As of earlier this month, Auburn University had distributed about $7.8 million to eligible students based on their 2019-2020 FAFSA forms.

About 13,000 students at Auburn were eligible for the grants. As of June 4, a total of 6,194 students had applied and all the funds had been distributed, the university said in a written statement. Awards ranged from $400 to $2,400 per student.

At the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, more than $10 million in CARES funding was allocated for students. Eligible students will receive between $750 and $1,400. The largest fund awards will go to students with the highest level of need, the university said in a written statement. 

Students who did not receive funds on the initial distribution and who complete a FAFSA by June 30 may be eligible for additional funds on a first-come, first-served basis until all funds are exhausted.

At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, about $6 million is available for students. So far, about 3,000 students have received aid ranging from $50 to $900 and a deadline for a second wave of disbursements is June 15. 

Initial eligibility requirements were a FAFSA form on file and that spring semester classes were being taken in-person, Tyler Peterson, UAB’s executive director of Admissions, Financial Aid and Scholarships told ADN.

Potentially eligible students were asked to fill out a form explaining how COVID-19 financially disrupted their semester.

“We’ve found is some students that say, ‘Yes, I’m eligible, but COVID-19 did not financially impact me or my family,’” Peterson said. In that case, the money goes back into the pool for other students.

Peterson said some of the main areas in which students were impacted by the virus and school disruption included meals, housing and rent, child care, transportation and technology.

As the CARES money continues to be distributed, students don’t have to have qualified for Pell grants or other federal loans, Peterson said, but they do have to fill out the FAFSA form.

He said the goal is to distribute all available funds by next week. 

University needs

Distributing half the emergency relief fund to students leaves nearly $100 million for the institutions themselves. That money is to be used to “cover any costs associated with significant changes to the delivery of instruction due to the coronavirus.”

A spokesman for Auburn said the remaining about $7.8 million in CARES Act funding will be used to cover costs the university has incurred or will incur in the areas of instruction, health and safety.

The Auburn Plainsman reported Wednesday that according to a letter from university leadership to faculty and staff, the pandemic has cost the school more than an estimated $27 million this year.

The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa has more than $10 million to spend at its campus. A comment on the money’s uses was not available this week. 

In late April, reported that University of Alabama System Chancellor Finis E. St. John said COVID-19 financial losses at the Tuscaloosa campus would be $40 million to $50 million. Losses at UAB would be close to that and lesser at University of Alabama Huntsville.

Purcell said not all institutions have fully expensed their allocations and additional guidance from the USDOE on allowable expenses is still anticipated.

The additional money directed at HBCUs may be used to cover the cost of technology associated with a transition to distance education, grants to cover the costs of attendance for eligible students and faculty and staff trainings, the U.S. Department of Education said in April. Additionally, funds may be used to cover operational costs, such as lost revenue, reimbursements for prior expenses and payroll.

Purcell earlier this month communicated with university leaders about plans and anticipation for “a more robust fall semester.”

He said communication with students and parents about the fall semester are key.

“Please be advised that as we get closer to August, greater scrutiny will be given to how your campus(es) are addressing the health threat of COVID-19,” he said to campus leaders in a written communication. “Faculty, staff, students, parents, and the public will want to know detailed information regarding your plans for delivering instruction and protecting the health and wellbeing of everyone on campus. He said public communications should include plans for:

  • Repopulation of the campus;
  • Monitoring health conditions to ensure the detection of infection;
  • Containment to prevent the spread of the disease, if detected;
  • Pivoting campus operations in the event that it becomes necessary, either because of an outbreak on campus or another statewide order from the governor.

Alabama Community College System spokeswoman Rachel Adams said each college has been asked to obligate 25% of their institutional CARES act funds toward statewide distance learning initiatives that will improve the student experience. Examples of these initiatives include:

  • Expansion of remote learning systems through the implementation of a common learning management systems as well as online proctoring and online tutoring services;
  • Professional development training for faculty and staff related to remote learning;
  • Expanding IT capacity to support remote learning programs, including increasing internet connectivity, speed and/or bandwidth, upgrading firewalls and security systems, upgrading servers and upgrading remote access speeds.

The ACCS is also committing $2.5 million of its own budget toward the expansion of distance learning to be used toward implementing Massive Open Online Course offerings and to expand virtual and online learning components and platforms throughout the system. 

“(Massive Open Online Course) are open to everyone which means any Alabamian could sign up for a MOOC regardless of their background or age,” Adams said. “Implementation of MOOCs would allow prospective students to utilize free self-paced, online learning resources for any remedial education needs such as entry-level math, English, and other disciplines as they transition to a college environment.”

Chart showing CARES Act allocations to colleges and universities in Alabama

Source: Alabama Department of Finance

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