How Did Pandemic Recovery Funding Support California Community Colleges?

How Did Pandemic Recovery Funding Support California Community Colleges?

The pandemic created daunting challenges for students, families, and institutions of higher education. The federal government provided California Community Colleges billions of dollars in emergency aid to support its students and institutions. Our survey of how they allocated that funding shows that much of it went to supporting students directly through the provision of emergency student aid and expanded student supports and services. Many of these investments addressed college affordability by providing cash transfers in the form of emergency aid to students. They also helped lower the total cost of attendance by providing free books, free or loaned laptops, free or reduced-price internet, access to food pantries, school supplies, child care assistance, as well as housing and transportation supports. It also included forgiving student debts or fines (e.g., parking tickets, overdue tuition, library fines, etc.) that often place holds on a student’s ability to register for courses or even earn their degree (Eaton et al. 2022). In addition, many colleges prioritized equity over equality, targeting emergency aid, services, and/or supports to students with the greatest needs or most dire circumstances.

Institutions themselves also benefited greatly from the large infusion of federal emergency relief funding. Many colleges reported investing in supporting faculty, staff, and students with the transition of courses, supports, and services to the online environment. The areas where most colleges invested institutional aid included equipment and supplies, faculty and staff training, lost revenue from non-tuition sources, distance learning supplies, high- speed internet, and additional emergency aid to students. Importantly, among these top areas, students were the primary beneficiaries of additional emergency aid and they also benefited from the investments in distance learning supplies, high-speed internet, and equipment and supplies.

The following recommendations are informed by this survey of pandemic recovery activities and intended to help guide future funding and policy efforts that aim to promote enrollment and equitable outcomes.

Prioritize investments that help lower the cost of attending college for low-income students. College affordability is a prime concern for Californians. We recommend that federal, state, and local institutional funding prioritize investments that help lower the cost of attending college for low-income students. Given the cost concerns and current budget realities, it is more important than ever to support students in meeting their total cost of attendance by weaving various supports, services, and programs that together can help lower the cost of attending college. This could occur, for example, by boosting access to basic needs like the campus food pantry and by supporting students in accessing safety net programs like CalFresh, Medi-Cal, housing assistance, and subsidized child care. College can also be made more affordable through dual enrollment programs like College and Career Access Pathways (CCAP), which provide high school students with access to college courses with free tuition and books. Since online education is expected to continue at high rates, colleges should also prioritize providing free laptops and ensuring that all students have access to an affordable and reliable internet connection. Policy changes and investments aimed at getting all high school graduates to complete the FAFSA, together with state investments in basic needs centers, broadband for all, and the expansion of dual enrollment are well positioned to support these efforts. Equally important will be addressing the challenges to implementing such policy changes.

Build capacity at college foundations to help maintain emergency aid. Emergency aid for financial hardships such as housing and food insecurity should be maintained. An emergency grant can make the difference between staying enrolled and dropping out—low-income students can often be derailed by not having sufficient money for gas, car maintenance, housing, electricity, water, and other basic needs. Fifty-six percent of colleges ranked emergency aid as their top investment if funding continued. Since the primary source of funding to sustain emergency aid going forward would be the individual college’s foundation, the Foundation for California Community Colleges, the system office, or the broader philanthropic community should help colleges build their capacity to grow, sustain, and ensure equity in fundraising efforts.

Consider eliminating institutional fines and fees that can adversely affect enrollment and completion. Changes to college (or district) level policies and practices that can affect student outcomes are among the lowest- hanging fruit. In this case, institutional decisions to impose fines and fees on certain activities have been found to have a disproportionate impact on the neediest students. As most are already cancelling such debts thanks to the pandemic recovery funding, and since such fines are self-imposed, we recommended colleges consider eliminating them. Instead, they could explore non-punitive ways to encourage student retention and success such as automatic renewal of library books, free parking, and for low-income students, automatic free tuition and fees. To defray the potential loss of income, colleges could provide the debt relief and other free services and supports only to low-income students, continuing to charge students who have the ability to pay.

Ensure ongoing investments support equitable access and success in online courses. Our survey finds that colleges prioritized HEERF dollars to ensure that institutions, faculty, staff, and students had access to the technology and training needed to support the online transition. Moving forward, prioritizing and sustaining investments in this area will be key, given that nearly 60 percent of colleges expect to offer more than 40 percent of courses online in the future. Having colleges and districts identify opportunities to leverage district or systemwide efforts like those supported by the California Virtual Campus and the Online Education Initiative, as well as strategically braiding federal, state, local, and philanthropic support aimed at ensuring digital equity will be key to supporting equitable access and success in online courses.

Evaluate the investments’ effectiveness. The volatile budget situation in California heightens the need to evaluate and identify the most effective strategies. Further research will be necessary to help inform the future direction of investments, especially policies that improved college affordability, such as the emergency student aid awards and the provision of basic needs supports. More broadly, expansion of online student supports and services and courses will need assessment. We also need to know whether and how funds used to holistically support the online transition created stronger outcomes. Institutional research offices have capacity constraints, but the Accelerating Recovery in Community Colleges (ARCC) network and the broader policy and academic research community are on track to help fill these gaps.

Read More