College leaders: Colorado’s CARES Act money doesn’t do enough for schools and students

(Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

Federal assistance meant to lessen the economic blow of COVID-19 on Colorado’s colleges isn’t fully meeting the needs of their neediest students and comes with restrictions that limit the ability of schools to shore up finances, say school leaders.

In particular, the regulations put institutions that serve large numbers of part-time students at a disadvantage.

“The whole implementation of the CARES Act has really not been very good,” said Heidi Markey, Adams State University’s financial aid director, talking about the coronavirus relief bill. 

In total, the state’s institutions received $173.3 million from the CARES Act — $144.5 million for public institutions and $28.8 million for privately operated schools. 

Schools must allocate half the money to students. And the half for institutions carries restrictions.

The reporting measures allow little flexibility for schools in how they can spend money and create disparities in how students get money. And the U.S. Department of Education guidance restricts student eligibility and excludes institutions that serve high numbers of part-time students.

“The way it sounded was it was almost too good to be true: Here’s the bill, here’s the money, now go out and use it,” said Cheryl Lovell, Adams State University president. “And then it went through the process of getting guidance and regulations (from the U.S. Department of Education) and it kind of narrowed the focus quite a bit.”

Flexibility in distribution, confusion for some students

In contrast, the stimulus package for the 2009 Great Recession enabled schools to more easily access money for institutional needs. 

The CARES Act doesn’t reimburse schools for as broad a variety of expenses. That is critical because Colorado lawmakers face a $3.3 billion budget hole and may make deep cuts to higher education. 

The federal money is also likely not enough for the state’s more than 75 private and public schools to recoup losses. Lawmakers and schools are lobbying for a second round of federal help.

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The mandate to spend half the relief funds on students puts schools in the role of a banker of sorts. Colleges must decide how to distribute the federal money to students, such as through grants or emergency financial aid to meet needs such as food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and child care. 

Schools across the state are taking varied approaches.

Metropolitan State University of Denver administrators sent money to students based on their financial need. The school received $14.4 million from the CARES Act and $1 million more because it serves a high number of students of color.

The university awarded student grants ranging from $250 to $650 each, depending on families’ financial need.

“We’re thankful for the money from the federal government to continue to support students, and the need is great,” said George Middlemist, Metro State University of Denver chief financial officer. 

Schools such as the University of Colorado Denver and Adams State created systems to send students aid if they apply. 

Colorado College Director of Financial Aid Shannon Amundson said the federal government could have better served students by taking a uniform approach to aid them.

“I just think the way that it happened has been really anxiety producing for students to figure out,” she said. “Every school is doing it differently. That was how it was intended. But I think the lack of clarity at a national level has been difficult on students.”

Requirements leave out some students

The CARES Act has also made it difficult for Adams State to ensure the success and well-being of every student — part of its mission, Markey said.

Despite intense need among students, the school has had to reject many applications for grants.

Federal Education Department guidelines are much stricter than the law itself and exclude Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, online, and international students.

The inability to send out money to DACA students — young adults who have lived in the United States illegally since childhood —  is especially drawing criticism. The California community college system is suing U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her department.  

Markey said the move to exclude certain groups of students felt political. The school does not track whether a student has DACA status.

“They’ve put so many restrictions on the fund that it’s not as student friendly as it should be,” Markey said.

Schools are working to find avenues to aid students. Metro State seeks to raise $300,000 for an endowment for DACA students, said Will Simpkins, its vice president for student affairs. The school enrolls the most DACA students in the state.

“We were extremely disappointed when the Department of Ed waited so long to provide guidelines,” Simpkins said. “And then the guidelines seemed more restrictive than the legislative language that Congress used.”

Not every student is counted

Almost half of the University of Colorado Denver’s students attend school part time, less than 12 credit hours.

The CARES Act formula for distributing money, however, doesn’t consider students that aren’t full time. That means the $10 million CU Denver is allocated must be stretched further among its roughly 25,000 students — just under $400 per student.

That is $114 less per student than the larger University of Colorado Boulder, which has just 16% of its 36,000 students attending part time.

CU Denver spokeswoman Sarah Erickson said part-time students’ non-tuition and fee-related expenses are similar, if not identical, to those of full-time students.

“Our commitment at CU Denver is to help all of our students in whatever way we can,” she said. “We continue to do so even with a federal funding formula that excluded online and part-time students.”

Other colleges with a high part-time student body are also in a similar position. 

Nationally, community colleges serve 40% of the total college student body, but only received about 27% of federal funds for colleges, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. Community colleges in Colorado also educate a large share of part-time students compared with the state’s flagship.

Colorado Community College System Chancellor Joe Garcia said part-time students often are caring for families while going to school. He said they still have plenty of need for relief funds.

Schools also offer their full services to students who are part time, Simpkins said. The part-time students also are crucial to rebuilding the economy, he said.

“I think that there needs to be a revolution within higher education where we really embrace the part-time students because those are the students that we are going to really need to complete degrees to fill high-need jobs,” Simpkins said.

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