Federal relief money boosted community colleges, but now it’s going away

Chronically starved for resources, the schools have used federal emergency funds to help more students keep going and graduate. What happens when the money is gone?

Students at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey face a host of life challenges, among them being able to afford food and housing.Courtesy Raritan Valley Community College

This story about community college funding was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 

This year, Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey made a move it had considered but never pulled off for lack of money. Its students, like those at most community colleges, are up against a host of life challenges, among them being able to afford food and housing. They usually need more hands-on help than those at four-year schools.

So starting in March, Raritan used part of the $25 million it had received from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, or HEERF, which Congress passed as part of broader pandemic aid, to hire two financial coaches and set up an eight-person call center to address the fire hose of questions pouring in from current and prospective students.

Some of the queries were straightforward: how to enroll, the price of tuition, how to register for classes. Others weren’t: I lost my job, so my income last year doesn’t reflect what I’m making this year; can you adjust my financial aid? What if I can’t pay my tuition balance right away?

Ania Gonzalez, 51, had long wanted a college degree but figured she couldn’t afford it, and in any case she had had trouble navigating the paperwork. A naturalized citizen who immigrated from Costa Rica, she has a GED certificate and speaks English well, but her written and computer skills are limited.

Ania Gonzalez once tried to enroll at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey but gave up after she had trouble with the application. When she tried again in May, she got help from one of the school’s newly hired financial coaches.Steven Yoder for The Hechinger Report

After 20 years as a house cleaner, she had gotten better work as a packaging operator at manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies but kept losing jobs because she had trouble filling out the required forms. She tried once to enroll at Raritan but gave up after she couldn’t figure out the application.

In May, she decided to try again. This time she was directed to Antoinette Bryant, one of the newly hired financial coaches. Bryant helped her through the application process, sitting beside her as she filled out forms. Now Gonzalez is enrolled in the school’s English as a Second Language program, after which she wants to get a health or science degree.

Colleges and universities have used much of the federal HEERF money to cover costs associated with the pandemic — such as buying more laptops and cleaning equipment, setting up internet hot spots for students and making up for lost tuition revenue. But Raritan and other community colleges also have invested in services they’ve always needed but couldn’t afford: nonacademic support to help students navigate the roadblocks that keep so many from getting degrees. And they’ve bought equipment and services aimed at improving academic outcomes. With the federal relief money winding down, however, school leaders wonder how they’ll keep paying for the changes, which they say are helping students stay on track.

Labor experts and employers say community college degrees are key to filling the country's skills gap. There were 6.9 million Americans out of work last month, with the most recent figures showing 11 million open jobs. The number of positions that require technical skills increased during the pandemic in fields like construction and manufacturing — jobs that community college graduates fill.

But community college students face big challenges getting their degrees. Almost 40 percent of them earn or come from families that earn less than $20,000 a year. They average 28 years old, almost a third are the first in their families to go to college, and 15 percent are single parents. The pandemic made it harder for them to stay in school; enrollment at community colleges has fallen by almost 15 percent since fall 2019.

From March 2020 to this March, Congress approved about $76 billion in aid to colleges and universities as part of three federal relief packages. Schools could use the money to cover the extra costs associated with Covid-19, and they were required to award almost half the total to students as emergency grants.

Raritan put a chunk of its relief money — about $250,000 — toward a new software package that helps students map their shortest pathways to degrees. The system, offered by the company EduNav, lets students and their advisers use a single dashboard to register for courses, block out times they can’t take classes and map semester-by-semester pathways to degrees.

Just figuring out which classes a student couldn’t take in a given semester because of work or family obligations could take an hour in the old system, said Jason Fredericks, the college’s dean of student affairs.

“When that student meets with an academic adviser now, they’re not talking about, ‘Oh, are you babysitting at this time?’ They’re talking about long-term goals. They’re talking about internships,” he said.

Without the HEERF money, there’s no way Raritan could have afforded the software, President Michael McDonough said.

Raritan also outfitted a dozen smart classrooms — set up with multiple screens, ceiling microphones and robotic cameras — which faculty members use to record lectures for students who can’t get to class or to hold hybrid classes in which some students are on-site and others are remote. The asynchronous classes, which give students a lot more flexibility, were essential after Hurricane Ida in September, when the school had to shut down because of a power cut, said Deborah Preston, the provost and vice president of academic affairs.

The new money also paid for extra equipment, like lathes, milling machines and band saws, for the school’s workforce training center so students in the advanced manufacturing programs could remain socially distanced. That brought a side benefit that will last beyond the pandemic: Previously, students took turns on the machines, one observing and one working; now they get more individual time on the equipment.

“It definitely helps speed up learning,” said Raritan student Cole Chapkowski, 19, a lab technician.

Cole Chapkowski, 19, a student in Raritan Valley Community College’s advanced manufacturing programs, says more machines have helped speed up learning. Steven Yoder for The Hechinger Report
An advanced manufacturing classroom with extra equipment that Raritan Valley Community College bought with HEERF money to keep programs socially distanced. Steven Yoder for The Hechinger Report

Twenty-five miles northeast, another community college also used HEERF funds to lower academic barriers. Almost a third of students at New Jersey’s Union County College work full time and nearly another third part time, according to a student survey last year. Until recently, students who needed to use specialized software programs — like Adobe apps for design classes, CAD for engineering or SPSS for statistics — could do so only on campus computers, a big limitation, because the facilities close at 9 or 10 p.m. So the school used $1.6 million in HEERF money to buy 1,200 five-year licenses that give students off-campus access to the software, which has been a “game changer,” said Bernard Polnariev, the college’s vice president for administrative services.

Polnariev said the college’s students dealt with more mental health challenges than ever. So in June the school used HEERF funds to hire two social workers to help with counseling services and to connect students with area nonprofit groups for help with food, housing and health insurance.

Other community colleges have used HEERF money to create high-quality internships and work-study programs connected to their majors, which increases graduation rates, said Iris Palmer, the deputy director for community colleges at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank New America, which has surveyed community college leaders throughout the pandemic.

“There are ways to spend relief money quickly but not have a long-term impact,” she said. “But these schools were interested in long-term investments that help students graduate.”

Polnariev pointed to his school’s largest-ever graduating class of 1,760 students and high course completion rates in 2020-21 — which stayed at nearly 80 percent through the worst of the pandemic — as evidence that its investments are working. At Raritan, it’s too soon to see results, McDonough said.

He worries that HEERF funding has temporarily masked the chronic underfunding of community colleges compared to their four-year counterparts. New Jersey’s two-year schools get about $14,000 less per student annually than its four-year institutions do, according to an analysis in October 2020 by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank.

“The underlying trends that are certainly pre-pandemic have not gone away, and we’re still not in many ways addressing them, ranging from enrollment to completion to the absolute disgrace of public funding,” McDonough said.

Palmer said several federal initiatives could change the trajectory. Among them is a proposal in the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Act to fund competitive grants for colleges and universities to offer students mentoring, case management, emergency financial grants and other support services that show evidence that they improve graduation rates.

Without new funds, it’s not clear how Raritan will continue a few of its HEERF-powered initiatives. Schools must use the money within a year of having received it, although extensions of up to 12 months are available.

Carolyn White, Raritan’s executive director of enrollment management, said her biggest concern is whether the school can continue the call center and financial coaches. In past years, the three or four staff members in the financial aid office processed aid for 3,500 students while responding to hundreds of incoming calls, the voicemails stacking up 500 deep. Now, calls are getting answered on the first ring, and the financial coaches help students in person as needed, as happened with Ania Gonzalez.

“We’re just hoping we can sustain these changes and not have to go back to the way we did things previously,” White said.

CORRECTION (Dec. 16, 8:13 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article incorrectly abbreviated the name of the specialized software used in statistics. The correct abbreviation is SPSS, for Statistical Product and Service Solutions, not SDSS.