PROVIDENCE, R.I., -- Rhode Island’s three public higher education institutions will receive a total of $90 million in federal stimulus funds to help pay for COVID-19 related costs.
Signed into law in early March, the American Rescue Plan allocates nearly $40 billion in the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), representing the single largest investment in public education in American history. According to the Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner, the University of Rhode Island received around $30 million in federal stimulus money, Rhode Island College received just under $22 million and the Community College of Rhode Island received $39 million.
“These funds are going to make sure that college is still an option for many Rhode Islanders, given the economic impact that COVID has had,” Catherine McConnell, director of strategic initiatives at the Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner said. “All higher [education] is hurting because people are hurting, and our economy is hurting. It is our job as higher ed to try and figure it out. But there is always more that is needed.”
All three of Rhode Island’s public institutions faced budget deficits and declined enrollment due to the coronavirus pandemic which resulted in layoffs and cutbacks at the institutions. At Rhode Island College, 35 unionized staff members were laid off at the beginning of this academic year. Prior budget cuts have forced the college to reduce financial aid, restrict travel, cut operating costs and raise tuition.
According to McConnell, the majority of the funds will be used to provide students with financial aid, although the state is still reviewing guidelines from the federal government on how stimulus money should be spent. The Department of Education states that schools must use at least 50% of HEERF funds on student grants, except for for-profit institutions, which must spend 100% of HEERF funds on student grants.
Additionally, public institutions may use HHERF funds for other institutional costs such as payroll and “technology costs associated with a transition to distance education.” Schools must also use an unspecified portion of funds to implementing campus-wide COVID-19 mitigation strategies and “conduct direct outreach to financial aid applicants about the opportunity to receive a financial aid adjustment due to the recent unemployment of a family member or independent student, or other circumstances.”
Based on these stipulations, the American Council on Education estimates the minimum amount Rhode Island College may spend on student grants to be approximately $10,579,500. URI must spend at least $15,393,000 of their stimulus funds on grants and CCRI must spend at least $19,154,500.
Although the HEERF funds include no student eligibility requirements in regard to financial status, schools must prioritize students who receive Pell Grants.
It is unclear whether undocumented students, international students or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients are eligible to receive HEERF funds. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) said, “NASFAA's understanding is that ED [Education Department] is continuing to work, along with the Department of Justice, on clarification regarding the eligibility of DACA, undocumented, and international students.” However, a prior Trump administration official claimed that these students would not be eligible for previous federal stimulus relief because of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which could potentially apply to stimulus money from the American Rescue Plan.