A look at pandemic relief funding for community colleges

By Tabitha Whissemore

During the pandemic, the federal government directed more than $75 billion through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) to colleges and universities.

A recent Community College Research Center (CCRC) brief provides a closer look at how much funding was awarded to and spent by the nation’s community colleges between March 2020 and February 28, 2023. The spending deadline is June 30.

HEERF was intended to provide emergency aid directly to students facing financial challenges during the pandemic and to ensure higher education institutions could continue to serve students. Congress appropriated funds to higher education institutions in three acts passed between March 2020 and July 2022. Funding amounts to each institution varied based on enrollment.

Initially, the funding formula was weighted toward full-time equivalent enrollment of federal Pell Grant recipients. The formula was adjusted in subsequent legislation to provide more funding for institutions that enroll part-time students as well as students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses, “though it retained its emphasis on Pell Grant recipients,” the report says.

How much was received

According to CCRC’s report, the U.S. Education Department (ED) awarded grants to 970 community colleges, allocating a total of $25.8 billion. The amounts ranged from $306,209 to $1.6 billion, averaging $26.5 million per institution.

Student aid totaled $10.1 billion (or 39% of the total allocation) and was the most quickly spent. It ranged from $124,240 to $637 million per institution. Colleges had flexibility as to how they made students aware of these funds and how they ultimately dispersed funds to students.

Institutional aid was the largest portion of aid awarded at $13.9 billion (54%) of total funds. Similar to student aid, colleges had significant discretion over how to use these funds, though some uses were prohibited (such as marketing and recruitment, endowment and capital outlays). Amounts awarded ranged from $30,341 to $854 million and averaged $14 million per institution.

Other aid comprised $1.8 billion (7%) of the total funds and was awarded to 794 of the 970 community colleges that received HEERF grants. It was allocated to qualifying institutions that served high concentrations of minority and low-income students. Funding amounts ranged from $20,231 to $99 million per institution. The average college receiving other aid was awarded $2.7 million.

How much was spent

About 87% of the funds awarded – or $22.4 billion – has been spent as of February 2023. That averages to about $23 million per institution that has been spent. Of the $3.4 billion in unspent funds at community colleges, nearly 74% remains in institutional aid. Colleges have spent about $11.4 billion (83%) of their institutional aid.

Ninety-seven percent of student aid has been spent, averaging $10 million per institution. Of the other aid, $1.1 billion (59%) of those funds have been spent.

CCRC, through the ARCC (Accelerating Recovery in Community Colleges) Network intends to release a full report this year that will examine in detail the amounts awarded and spent across all award categories and explore spending patterns by institutional characteristics.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Tabitha Whissemore

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.