Students getting $218 million from $496 million in federal pandemic funds awarded to Missouri public universities

Missouri’s public universities will receive $496 million in federal COVID-19 funds and distribute about 44% – $218 million – in financial aid to students by September 2022.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress in March 2020, allotted $2.2 trillion to provide fast and direct economic aid to those negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately $14 billion of the total was provided to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education to create the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). Three rounds of HEERF funds were allocated. The first and third rounds required 50% of the allocation be distributed in student financial assistance.

Financial aid can be awarded to students and those enrolled in distance education. Money can be spent on any “component of the student’s cost of attendance or for emergency costs that arise due to the coronavirus, such as tuition, food, housing, health care (including mental health care) or child care.”

Priority must be given to students with exceptional need, such as students who receive Pell Grants. Grants may not be conditional on future enrollment in the university. If the student has an outstanding account balance with the university, the institution cannot require the student to use the grant to pay off the balance.

“Our students have faced many challenges during the pandemic,” Southeast Missouri State University President Carlos Vargas said in an email to students informing them of a distribution of $10.4 million in direct aid. “I am proud of the flexibility and determination they have displayed. I hope this aid will help ease some of their stress and burdens and allow our students to better focus attention on their studies and academic pursuits.”

Southeast reported the first two rounds of HEERF were limited to students eligible for federal financial assistance. During the first round completed in July 2020, Southeast distributed $3.4 million to 3,677 students. During the second round completed in June, it distributed another $3.4 million to 5,928 students.

Southeast posted information on how it spent HEERF II allocations, required by law. Southeast spent $4.1 million of its $11.5 million allocation. It reported spending $2 million on “campus safety and operations,” defined as costs or expenses related to disinfecting and cleaning of dorms and other campus facilities, purchase of personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, additional personnel to increase frequency of cleaning and reconfiguration of facilities to promote social distancing. It spent $1.3 million for “replacing lost revenue from academic sources,” such as cancelled events, disruption of food service, dorms, childcare, lost parking revenue and cancellation of use of campus facilities by other organizations.

Southeast reported spending $5.3 million of its $20.4 million of HEERF III money. It spent $2.9 million on “replacing lost revenue from academic sources” and $1.1 million to lost academic sources.

Students cannot apply for financial assistance directly from the U.S. Department of Education and must contact their educational institution for information and guidance. The educational institutions determine how grants will be distributed to students, how the amount of each student grant is calculated, and additional instructions to assist students in applying for or receiving the grants.

The administration at Harris-Stowe State University, one of two historically Black universities in the state, used its funding to eliminate debts students owed to the institution. LaTonia Collins Smith, president of Harris-Stowe, told KCUR the university allocated $330,000 to pay the debts of 344 students.

“We discovered we had students who were not enrolling for the fall semester because they incurred this debt,” Collins Smith said. “What we wanted to do was alleviate that. Many of our students said they couldn’t work, weren’t eligible to work because of COVID-19 or lost their jobs. As a result, they couldn’t make payments toward their balances for the previous semester or semesters.”

After informing the students about the debt relief by email, Collins Smith said many thought it was a scam.

“We spent a majority of the time the first week convincing students it wasn’t a hoax,” Collins Smith said. “We received several letters from parents and students and phone calls expressing gratitude. Many of them knew if they didn’t have the assistance, they would have to sit out a semester or two or stop (attending).”

This article was originally posted on Students getting $218 million from $496 million in federal pandemic funds awarded to Missouri public universities

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