UCC COVID relief fund: Student checks on the way; new funds moving slowly

Published by Faith Byars on

Illistration showing someone determining how to spend funds
Graphic provided by Pixabay

UCC COVID relief fund: Student checks on the way; new funds moving slowly

More COVID aid money is coming for UCC students. Some UCC students may get two allotments: a $340 to $350 check from the Governors Emergency Education Relief fund and money from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplement Appropriations Act (CRRSAA). Others will just receive the CRRSAA assistance if they earlier had received a $660 check (or other amounts) through the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security Act (CARES) fund in spring or summer 2020.

In order to determine who would get both allotments, the college first had to find Title IV eligible students. Title IV refers to federal student aid from programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education. That process was recently completed.

“Title IV eligible students enrolled in winter term who did not previously receive CARES Act funds have been identified,” UCC President Debra Thatcher said in a Jan. 28 letter to campus staff. “We are in the process of double checking the data to assure that all eligible students are included. We anticipate distribution in the near future.”

These new $340 to $350 GEER checks have been in the works for the last few months under the leadership of Michelle Bergmann, UCC’s director of financial aid.

CARES Act funding for higher education: 1. HEERF— Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (federal funds directly awarded to institutions) 2. GEER— Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (separate CARES funds managed by the Oregon Governor’s Office, split between higher education, K-12 and early childhood education)

CRRSAA funding for higher education: 1. HEERF II— Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (federal funds directly awarded to institutions) 2. GEER II— Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (separate CARES funds managed by the Oregon Governor’s Office, split between higher education, K-12 and early childhood education)

Then each of the funds are split between 1. Funds directly for students but allocated by the institutions (these funds have some eligibility requirements, but they are not restricted on what students can spend the funds on) and 2. Institutional funds for inner improvements or relief within the institution (these funds are regulated and can only be spent on actions, equipment or training which meets certain criteria).
Infographic showing how the money from CARES and CRRSAA were used
Graphic by Peyton Manning / The Mainstream

GEER funds are CARES Act funds funneled through the Oregon governor’s office. UCC received $188,070 in GEER funds specifically for students which will be distributed soon.

However, the CRRSAA funds, on the other hand, while forthcoming, will be unavailable for some time. There is no reliable information now on when students can expect this aid or how much they can expect. Students who aren’t eligible for the coming distribution of GEER soon shouldn’t assume that they have no money coming at all during the CRRSAA wait time.

Many students are asking what exactly is taking so long. Knowing that the government has sent these large grants out through new legislation but being in the dark related to when they’ll arrive is difficult.

“I honestly feel a little weirded out that everything is so vague about getting coronavirus aid relief,” Katie Gray, a UCC student studying business administration, said. “Especially since there’s not any specific criteria for students who are in need.”

Another UCC student in the Business Administration program who didn’t want their name shared said, “It would be nice to know if everyone is getting relief funds or if it is only certain students. Going to college through a pandemic is hard, so having a little bit of back up money for books and tuition would be very helpful.”

The main issue is that the rules for CRRSAA disbursement are so vague that before the UCC leadership can really consider options or make decisions about how to distribute student funds or allocate institutional funds, they must get some questions answered. This confusion is affecting colleges across the U.S.

“We keep getting mixed messages,” Bergmann said. “When it comes out, it is very general. It sounds like we can use it for anything we want, and then it turns around saying, ‘No, the students have to be Title IV eligible. They cannot be in a program that is currently all online, etc.’”

Thatcher pointed out during a Dialogue with Deb event on Jan. 28 that, while the funds support operations for students, they do not fund the supplemental work or cost of managing the aid. So, staff like Bergmann and Missy Olson, assistant vice president of enrollment and student services, are working outside their normal duties to figure out the Department of Education’s strange and vague rules.

“All because we love our students,” said Bergmann.

Currently, due to these many logistical questions regarding restrictions, not much planning can be done. According to Thatcher, chief financial officers throughout Oregon are working with the Oregon Community College Association’s legal counsel to clarify how to use the CRRSAA funds. UCC has formed their committee to determine how to spend the funds once they get this legal counsel. However, not much progress can be made without answers.

“We haven’t even received the funds; … we are unsure if there’s going to be an application process or not,” Bergmann said. “It is really all up in the air at this point.”

One factor that is known is that the funds are to focus on students with the greatest need. However, no information was given on how to determine or define that need.

A man holding a piggy bank
Photo provided by Pixabay

“In making the decision of how we are going to make the money available to students to be the fairest we can to students and get as much money as we can out to as many students as we can, we are just going to have to really pay attention to the details of how we are awarding and how to keep track of that for future reporting purposes,” Bergmann said.

What the criteria does allow for, however, is the distribution to a greater population of students. The CRRSAA funds are less restrictive than the CARES funds, and thus can reach many more students.

“Before (with the CARES funds), anyone who did not fill out the FAFSA application was not eligible. We do have a lot of students who come here and know they are not eligible for financial aid, so they do not complete financial aid applications. So, anyone who did not complete it was not eligible. Any student that was already registered in a fully online program like our paralegal students was ineligible. Those students could now be considered eligible at this point in time,” Bergmann said.

Adult Basic Skills and GED students were also ineligible to receive funds last time. Information is not unclear on if they will be eligible to receive CRRSAA funding, but this is one of the questions being asked.

According to Thatcher’s office, the CRRSAA funds will likely consider many areas of need: “The CRRSAA funds include $560,927 for direct aid to students. The rules for distribution, which are still not fully explained, allow more flexibility. We are required to prioritize students with exceptional need, and students may use the funds for any component of their cost of attendance or for emergency costs that arise due to coronavirus, such as tuition, food, housing, health care (including mental health care), or childcare. Title IV and distance ed restrictions do not apply to CRRSAA.”

Some students who received the CARES $660 checks last spring report ongoing financial difficulties and struggles due to pandemic closures and restrictions. This leaves many students curious about what leaders mean when they say the upcoming CRRSAA funds are “more flexible.”

“How do we determine the highest need, or do we go and send funds out to everyone because right now the need is quite high in general?” Director of Information Technology Tim Hill said. Hill isa member of the committee which will recommend the distribution of CRRSAA funds. “It is hard to say if that person has a $30 more need than that person. The need is everywhere. The programmers have been running jobs for the financial aid department to make sure that we get the right people included that meet the requirements of CRRSAA.”

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