NAICU Washington Update

COVID Spending Under Review

November 19, 2021

In a hearing this week, two subcommittees of the House Committee on Education and Labor held a joint hearing to review the implementation of the COVID relief education funding over the last 18 months. The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education and the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment heard from Cindy Marten, deputy secretary at the Department of Education, regarding the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, and James Kvaal, under secretary at the Department, regarding the Higher Education Emergency Relief funds (HEERF).

As Chair of the Higher Education Subcommittee, Rep. Frederica Wilson’s (D-FL) opening statement highlighted how much college students and institutions were helped by the emergency funding, saying “the investments we delivered to colleges and universities provided a lifeline to students and may have prevented the financial collapse of our higher education system.” She also encouraged coordination and oversight of the funds, saying “the Education Department must continue to ensure that institutions are using this funding responsibly to support their students, faculty, and staff, and that states are holding up their end of the bargain by maintaining their investments in higher education.”

In his testimony, Kvaal praised Congress for taking quick, decisive, and bipartisan action to provide emergency support, which “has made an immeasurable difference in the lives of college students and the postsecondary institutions that serve them.”  He also pointed out that colleges are “managing their HEERF resources prudently.”

He noted that HEERF helped students with immediate basic living expenses, financial barriers to staying enrolled, and technology for bridging the digital divide.  He also testified that HEERF helped colleges transition to online instruction, provide personal protective equipment, implement testing, tracking and tracing of the virus on campus, keep faculty and staff employed, and keep some colleges financially afloat. 

Now that colleges have met the immediate needs of students and colleges at the onset of the pandemic, Kvaal went on to highlight the progress colleges and universities have made in planning for and drawing down their relief funds.  Specifically, he testified that “As of November 12, colleges have spent 57 percent or more than half their available total HEERF student and institutional funds, 65 percent and 54 percent, respectively. These figures rise every week, and it is important to note that, because institutions must spend funds within days of drawing down funds, colleges have made additional plans and commitments for remaining HEERF dollars that are not captured in these figures.”  As an example, Kvaal testified that “colleges have committed to retain staff for the full academic year, but they only draw down federal funds when needed to make payroll.”

Both witnesses noted the Education Stabilization Fund transparency portal, which maintains reports on the emergency funding for both K-12 and higher education grants. It is important to remember when viewing the data that colleges have one year from the date of receiving their allocation to use the funds, and reports are made quarterly, so the data is not presented in real time.  

In a statement submitted to the hearing record, NAICU President Barbara Mistick wrote of the challenges colleges and universities and their students have overcome throughout the pandemic.  She also stressed the importance the federal relief has played in ensuring that colleges and universities could continue to provide a quality higher education while maintaining the health and safety of students, staff, faculty, and the community at large.

NAICU members participated in a recent survey conducted by the American Council on Education, which shows that across all of higher education: 
  • 80% of institutions agreed that HEERF funds allowed them to keep students enrolled by providing them with electronic devices and internet access.
  • 88% of institutions agreed that HEERF funds enabled their institutions to purchase COVID-19 tests, health screenings, and the health care needed to help students and faculty.
  • 70% of institutions agreed that HEERF funds enabled their institutions to keep faculty, staff, employees, and contractors at full salary levels who were at risk of unemployment due to pandemic-related factors.
  • 18% of institutions agreed their institutions were at risk of closing due to pandemic-related factors and HEERF funds enabled their institutions to continue operating.
  • 46% of institutions agreed that HEERF funds enabled their institutions to continue offering planned programs (i.e., programs of study) that were at risk of discontinuation due to pandemic-related factors.
Congress will continue to periodically review the use of HEERF funds, as colleges continue providing quarterly and annual reporting to the Department. 

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