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Written by Matthew D. Kirchner

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, 2020, constitutes the single largest stimulus bill in U.S. history. Included in its 880 pages is the $13,952,505,000 Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. Highly formula-driven in their allowable uses, the much-welcome funds present a puzzle of sorts for institutions of higher education (IHEs) as they consider their strategies to put the funds to best use.

While it certainly will not offset the entire negative financial impact that COVID-19 has had and will have on education, the funding comes as good news to IHE leaders as they plan their paths forward.

Matt Leaf is the Academic Dean at Hennepin Technical College in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, where more than five thousand students are being prepared for careers in technical fields. Leaf stated,

“The CARES Act will have a great impact on technical education. We are excited to receive the funding and, while it will only cover a small portion of the costs we are incurring due to COVID-19, it is certainly better than nothing.”

Better than nothing in the eyes of many, and while a great number of IHEs are still in the process of applying for the funding, others are well down the path of determining allocations and putting the funds to work in their institutions.

Early discussions with IHE leaders demonstrate that the use of funding will likely fall into a combination of three broad categories: As required by the CARES Act, at least fifty percent of funds must be expended on emergency financial aid and grants to students. Many IHEs are allocating the remaining funds to a combination of additional student support and offsetting revenue losses and costs incurred from shuttering campuses and moving to distance learning. Finally, leading institutions are utilizing funds to innovate around digital and remote learning models to the extent allowed by the requirements of the Act.

Student Support

Stacy Riley serves as Vice President of Student Services and Enrollment Management at Gateway Technical College in southeastern Wisconsin where the effects of COVID-19 were quickly felt by the school’s 20,000 students. Face-to-face activities at Gateway’s nine campus and center locations were suspended on March 16, 2020, and instruction was moved to a distance learning model just days later.

“We serve a wide array of students,” Riley notes. “We have made every effort to support our students, focusing on the immediate negative impact that COVID-19 has had on their lives.

“We really worked hard to understand how the change in our educational offerings has affected them for the spring. The CARES Act enabled us to help our students with expenses such as food, housing, rent, healthcare, childcare and other related expenses.”

Emergency relief funds have already been provided to more than 400 of Gateway’s students. This has enabled them to continue their education in spite of the financial hardships due to significant changes to delivery of instruction brought about for many of them by COVID-19.

Offsetting Lost Revenue and the Transition to Digital Learning

The CARES Act mandates a minimum of 50% of Higher Education Emergency Relief funds received by an IHE must be dedicated to emergency financial aid and grants to students, but schools have more flexibility in how the remaining 50% is allocated. To that end, IHEs are thoughtfully considering how to utilize the portion of funding that allows for more discretion.

While tuition, government grants, investment income and appropriations are all recognizable drivers of their operating revenue, IHEs also rely significantly on other sources of income, including housing, dining and parking fees. These have all but dried up as students departed college campuses in the wake of shutdowns. As a result, and as allowable by the CARES Act, many institutions are using a portion of their relief funding to soften the blow of the decrease in operating revenues brought about by COVID-19.

Likewise, the CARES Act provides resources to offset the cost of moving to distance learning. Many IHEs have been innovating their remote learning offerings for some time, but the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated massive change almost overnight. It rendered face-to-face instruction all but impossible, leaving IHEs no option but to rapidly migrate almost all instruction to distance learning models.

Not far up the Lake Michigan shoreline from Gateway, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee faculty had their work cut out for them as on-campus instruction came to an abrupt halt and programs moved online. University Provost Johannes Britz was proud of the efforts made by his faculty to make the transition to distance learning.

“We flipped six thousand courses in two weeks. It was truly remarkable and nothing short of a miracle.”

The move to online learning brings with it associated technology costs, including software and hardware. Students lacking computers, tablets and internet service quickly found themselves unable to access the content being delivered by their schools. At the same time, faculty scrambled to identify simulation and eLearning tools to support student coursework and to add variety to potentially mundane video lectures delivered on virtual meeting platforms.

As learning models transitioned to virtual environments, colleges also had to quickly innovate other student assistance resources. “Within forty-eight hours we moved all of our student support services to a digital environment,” Gateway’s Riley noted. “Financial aid, recruitment and front-line services like helping our students register or helping them make a payment. We are grateful and excited that we are able to support so many students in this way.”

Driving Innovation

Scenario planning is a process by which an organization envisions myriad possible future realities and then lays out potential future action plans for each. Thus, when one of the scenarios presents itself in the future, the organization already has a prescribed plan to react. With so much uncertainty related to the next six months, scenario planning is in high gear for many IHEs.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Britz anticipates one of three potential scenarios emerging in the coming months. One scenario contemplates students returning to campus for the fall semester under enhanced safety protocols. A second foresees students resuming a close-to-normal schedule in the fall semester, only to be interrupted by a spike in COVID-19 cases that would necessitate a return to distance learning. A third possibility is that the current pandemic has not subsided to a point where students can return to campus for the fall semester, and 100% of learning will be delivered remotely.

In any of these events, the learning environment will differ from the one that students departed in March. While a full return to campus in August is perhaps the simplest one for which to plan, IHEs are making necessary efforts to ensure policies, procedures and personal protective equipment are adequate to provide a safe and healthy environment for students, faculty and administrators.

Britz also believes the current crisis is accelerating the general transition to digital learning, and this transition will continue – even assuming college campuses are predominantly open for the fall semester. His institution is conducting weekly student surveys to gain insight into the efficacy of current online learning models. By and large, student feedback has been positive. As a result, Britz foresees an increase in online teaching as IHEs move to a hybrid model. The new model will integrate in-person instruction and experiential learning, with online content delivery and simulation also playing a significant role.

Gateway’s President and CEO Bryan Albrecht agrees. Widely recognized as thought-leaders in technical education, Albrecht and his team have put significant consideration and intention into how they will utilize the portion of their institution’s emergency relief funds that are not allocated to direct student financial support. Albrecht predicts that as much of 40% of the portion over which the college has discretion will be invested in distance learning implementation and technology. Albrecht commented,

“We are preparing to deliver at least fifty percent of our curriculum online in the fall, and we will make the investments necessary to do so in a way that maximizes the student experience.”

Kellogg Community College, based in Battle Creek, Michigan, serves nearly nine thousand students each year. As the COVID-19 crisis closed in, Industrial Electricity Instructor Kevin Barnes leveraged his existing relationship with Jeffersonville, Indiana-based Amatrol, Inc. to expedite his program’s transition to a remote learning model. Amatrol develops and manufactures curriculum, training systems, eLearning and virtual simulation software used to prepare students and learners for technical careers in industries like manufacturing, oil and gas, distribution, logistics and packaging.

“As our institution had to quickly transition to online content, I was glad we had a working knowledge of the Amatrol Learning Management System, curriculum, and equipment,” Barnes stated.

“Using their modular content format and online resources, we were able to quickly implement an online version of our program content so students could successfully complete the semester. Moving forward, we will leverage more of Amatrol’s strengths to create a robust and flexible course offering.”

Barnes is not the only advocate for including a variety of teaching approaches in the distance learning model. Garry Tomerlin is the former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Workforce in the Division of Workforce, Academic Affairs and Research at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Today he is responsible for Government Relations and Strategic Initiatives for Tech-Labs, a Texas-based provider of technical education learning solutions. He is seeing the drive to distance learning take place faster than ever before. He noted,

“The move toward remote distance learning has been an evolutionary process; correspondence courses delivered through the mail gave way to the digital platform and so on. Now, suddenly, instead of being evolutionary and iterative, many institutions are being faced with the need to adapt or die.”

Given the urgency with which they were required to adapt, many programs transitioned their traditional classroom models to systems that delivered classroom lectures via video links. While teacher-led learning will likely always have its place in higher education, Tomerlin foresees a much more technology-driven hybrid model as being ideal.

“You can’t just take a forty-eight hour contact course, slice it into two or three minute videos, and assign them to students. If I was a student and you told me my assignment for the next three weeks was to watch 900 videos, I think I would drop the course.”

Since emergency relief funds can be utilized in part to defray the cost of moving to distance learning models, many institutions are seeking creative platforms and partners to assist them in providing a more well-rounded distance learning experience for students.

Summary

Higher education is in the planning stages of allocating the funding they will receive through the CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds. Even so, clear trends are emerging in how the funds will be deployed within the boundaries of allowable uses. Rightly so, the needs of students and ensuring their continued access to their education programs is priority one.

Thereafter, offsetting losses due to COVID is of key importance, followed by offsetting the cost of the transition to innovative, creative and results-driven digital learning models.

One thing is for sure – the COVID-19 crisis is driving educators to rethink their use of technology, eLearning, simulation and virtual experiences on a scale and at a rate unforeseen before the crisis began. At least for the time being there is no other option.