You probably remember The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (AKA the CARES Act) that was passed by Congress back in March.
The resulting $2.1 trillion relief package is the source of the famous $1,200 checks that were sent to most American households. But many parts of the bill have garnered far less media attention, including $14 billion set aside for… wait for it… you! Ahem, I mean higher education, which includes awesome student affairs professionals like you.
Meet the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (or HEERF, for short). Its funds will be distributed across every type of American institution, aimed at supporting both the institutions themselves and individual students.
But how is each institution’s share of the pot divvied up? In summary, it’s all about enrollment numbers. (More specifically, it’s this formula. 75% will be award to institutions based on their number of full-time students who are receiving Pell grants. The remaining quarter will be award based on full-time non-Pell students. Online and part-time students are not factored in.)
However, as with most federal funding, institutions aren’t free to spend their checks however they wish. They must use it 50/50 for (in the act’s own words):
To distribute the first half out to students, most institutions have created online applications. Many financial aid offices have also created online FAQ pages to break down the application process and eligibility requirements for students and their families. (Check out an example from Valdosta State University, which is using Presence to manage the whole process.)
If you and your student affairs teammates haven’t yet communicated this opportunity to students, be sure to do so! Because even if they’ve already received information on it from your financial aid office or institutional leadership, a personal note from you should stand out far more. Receiving an email from someone they personally know is likely to capture their attention over a mass email sent to every student. You can play a critical role in encouraging students to apply!
Now, let’s focus on the other 50% of HEERF: The portion directed at helping institutions continue their operations despite the wildly unexpected expenses (and losses of revenue) brought on by COVID-19.
There are rules attached to spending these funds, too. And sure, you could pessimistically view them as red tape. But more optimistically (and realistically) you can view them as helpful guideposts, directing your institution towards what it needs to focus on in order to remain successful in developing students — both in the present, as this crisis continues on, and for the unpredictable future.
Ready for the rules? Here they are.
That document is long, and the language is far from Harry Potter-level engaging. So let me point out the part that should be most relevant to you, as someone highly invested in student learning and development: Institutions may use the funds to “purchase equipment or software, pay for online licensing fees, or pay for internet service to enable students to transition to distance learning as such costs are associated with a significant change in the delivery of instruction due to the coronavirus.”
In other words, you can use it to buy technology that will allow you to continue offering experimental learning opportunities! No need to wave goodbye to co-curricular engagement nor spend 40 hours a week attempting to build your own solutions from scratch; your institution can use HEERF funding to buy equipment and software that is perhaps more critical — to both individual student persistence and institutional engagement as a whole — now than ever before.
In fact, the Department of Education is encouraging institutions to use their HEERF funding to expand “remote learning programs, build IT capacity to support such programs, and train faculty and staff to operate effectively in a remote learning environment.”
Co-curricular learning that was happening on campus before the onset of the pandemic needs to continue, and HEERF funding can help.
But it won’t apply to just any programming or tech solution. Software that merely allows students to connect with one another and have fun won’t make the cut. It needs to directly relate to clear, intentional learning outcomes. So, I’m talking about things like:
- Service hours (especially if they can be tracked to meet degree requirements)
- Co-curricular transcripts
- Virtual orientation (with learning amplified by gamification)
- Experimental learning experiences
Fortunately, Presence makes this all possible! We’ve built solutions to empower #SApros like you to engage and develop students outside of the classroom — whether that means literally an inch from the classroom door, in the bright sunshine of your campus’s quad, or online, from each student’s living room.
Co-curricular opportunities aren’t frivolous or merely nice-to-have for students. You, surely understand the connection between engagement and retention. So, if your institution wishes to retain students during these turbulent times, it must invest — both figuratively and monetarily — in tools that will allow high-impact co-curricular learning to continue. HEERF is emergency aid and this is indeed a vital, emergency need.
We realize that decision-makers of your institution may not have “find a way to offer, measure, and track co-curricular engagement virtually” on their long list of priorities at the moment. But you should. You cannot continue the mission of student affairs without continuing to engage students, nor can you prove your department’s worth without carefully tracking and measuring involvement.
And by bringing ready-made solutions to the attention of your higher-ups (and reiterating how moving all classes online is not enough to “make campus virtual”), you can put it on their priorities list, too.
You can be the advocate for tech solutions. And thanks to HEERF, you can show how your institution will pay for it! (No need to whip out a calendar either; your institution’s allotted “institutional costs” can be found here.)