Guidance Note: COVID-19 Emergency Funding and California Higher Education Systems

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, things were going great for California’s public higher education institutions. In all three systems, levels of state funding were high and increasing, student outcomes were improving, and programs for needy students were strong. Then in March 2020, COVID-19 sent shocking changes to the means and methods of operating these educational institutions.

The crisis hits

Almost overnight, campuses closed and students, faculty and staff were sent home. Student and family incomes have collapsed. The University of California (UC), California State University (CSU), and California Community College (CCC) systems faced financial disaster similar to the Great Recession of 2008, while enduring a rampant global virus . Due to the complexity, differences in size, and unique campuses within each system, no one-size-fits-all solution could solve the financial and public health crisis affecting institutions.

California public institutions have faced potentially catastrophic financial dynamics: sharp declines in revenue from tuition, housing and food, and ancillary services such as parking and bookstores, as well as soaring costs associated with COVID-19 safety measures on campus and the movement of classes and students. online services. To make matters worse, state funding also decreased for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.

Federal emergency assistance has been significant and timely

The federal government was quick to pass a series of emergency relief bills, known as the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, of which $10.1 billion went to California. These funds were to be split equally between student aid and institutional deficit coverage – originally only for the required shift to online courses, but later expanded to cover other related costs.

Help for students. California students have received more than $5 billion in emergency grants. The first round of funding had restrictive rules for disbursement to students. Based on students enrolled full-time on campus rather than the total number of people and the number of Pell Fellowship recipients (as a measure of student need), this cycle favored UCs and CSUs over relation to CCCs. Although subsequent cycles have sought to address funding inequities, community college students have received less aid per student than their university counterparts throughout the pandemic.

Additionally, although the U.S. Department of Education and California public systems offered guidelines, each campus had different challenges getting money to students in need. Since the student information on file was based on their family’s financial status in previous tax years and the students had moved off campus, disbursement was a compromise between speed and accuracy. As the pandemic changed the incomes of students and families, it was also difficult to ensure the accuracy of payments.

Especially during the first round of federal aid, the most needy students can do without extra aid, especially at community colleges. Community college students often study part-time while working, and Pell Grant usage is low; moreover, these students often rely on state aid, not federal aid, so many did not have federal aid applications on file. Those without a stable home address and/or internet connection were the hardest to reach.

Institutional expenses. UC, CSU and community colleges received about $4.5 billion in institutional relief funding. In the first round, campus aid spending was limited to temporarily moving classes online, a major transition that needed to happen quickly. In later cycles, the federal government eased restrictions to allow aid to go to additional pandemic-related institutional spending. Notably, most institutions have used some of this funding to support the most needy students beyond the student allowance portion. Although each institution has published expenditure information publicly, approximately 13% of expenditure falls into an “other” category, making it difficult to understand its use.

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