Local colleges, universities spent millions in COVID-19 federal aid

Editor’s note: This story is part of a Dayton Daily News investigative project titled Billions in COVID aid: Where it’s going. Go here for more on this project, including searchable databases showing how your community spent CARES Act funds and now much it is getting in American Rescue Plan funds.

Ohio colleges and universities were awarded more than $2 billion from the three federal aid packages passed by Congress in the past two years.

Some of that money — about $16 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education — was targeted for grants to help students get through the pandemic, including the cost of housing, food, healthcare or day care. Many institutions awarded the funds by tracking the federal student aid form, FAFSA, and often awarded the amounts directly to students.

But the funding also went to support the colleges and universities themselves at a time when some of the institutions returned student fees paid for housing and food because of the COVID-19 pandemic and had to suddenly pivot to online classes while supporting their equipment and healthcare needs.

All the higher education institutions that received Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF, which came straight from the federal government) must spend that money by June 2023. The University of Dayton and Cedarville University have already spent their funds.

“We are grateful for the federal and state funding that allowed the University to award emergency grants to students impacted by the pandemic, to support significant health and safety protocols in our pandemic response, and to help offset significant financial challenges we faced during 2020 and 2021,” said Andy Horner, executive vice president for business and administrative services at UD.

A UD spokesman said more than $7.8 million in additional COVID-19 relief aid from different programs was provided to the university outside of the HEERF and Governor’s Emergency Education Relief money, which is distributed through the state.

Others, including Sinclair Community College and Edison State Community College, are waiting to distribute more grants for students using those federal dollars this semester or have not yet been able to spend all their funds.

COVID-19 mitigation

Most higher education institutions used the funds at least in part to mitigate COVID-19 spread.

UD spent some of their funding on equipment like masks and COVID-19 tests. Central State spent at least $2 million on health and vaccine incentives, the university said earlier this year.

Clark State Community College plans to use more than $3.5 million of remaining relief funds to update the campus’ HVAC systems, which can help in COVID-19 protection, according to experts.

Crystal Jones, Clark State spokeswoman, said the upgrades will allow the college to bring more fresh air into the buildings and improve the air quality.

Recovering revenue

Wright State and Miami University both used their dollars to refund millions of dollars of tuition, housing money and other fees, according to documents posted on their websites.

Universities and colleges were able to use the emergency funding to repay students who had already paid for housing for spring semester 2020 but were suddenly forced out of their dorms and back home for the rest of the semester.

Wright State refunded nearly $1.9 million in 2020, according to the university’s records. WSU also spent more than $3 million on moving students to virtual teaching, training teachers and other things that supported learning.

“Broadly speaking, the funds helped by supporting students with emergency grants, COVID mitigation, and transition to a remote teaching/learning environment,” said Seth Bauguess, spokesman for Wright State.

Expanding services

Sinclair Community College, which serves many people who are working and going to school, had to expand services during the pandemic.

Those included free, confidential counseling services, a free mental health app, mobile grocery services, mobile health clinic, financial counseling, legal assistance and medical advocacy services, said Cathy Petersen, spokeswoman for Sinclair.

Sinclair also hired a social worker who worked with more than 380 students in the fall semester, Petersen said.

“The funding allowed Sinclair to expand and enhance student services and adapt our operations to ensure we moved forward safely and effectively,” Petersen said.

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