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Griffs, Get your Grants: Tracking Canisius’s Portion of $5 Trillion

Source: Kevin Smith and U.S. Department of Education

By Patrick Healy, Opinion Editor

In any other year, Canisius receiving federal grants totaling more than $10 million would be breaking news. That’s much more than Canisius students receive in federal grants in any given year, and it equals about 10% of the college’s annual revenue. Clearly, 2020 was not “any given year.” Less than two weeks after President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 declaration of emergency, Uncle Sam drafted the money presses into the war against the “invisible enemy.”

Higher education was given .6% of CARES Act appropriations. If you’ve ever taken one of Canisius’s (dwindling) political science classes, you’d know that even .6% of any federal government operation is outrageously high. In sum, the federal government has spent $5 trillion on COVID-19 relief efforts and has given $76 billion of that to higher education (for bizarre perspective, that’s $50 and $.76, respectively, for every human who has ever lived).

Administered by the U.S. Department of Education under the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (“HEERF”), the funds were designed to cover costs incurred by higher education students and their institutions as a result of the pandemic. After all was said and (often not) done, Canisius ended up with $10,835,480, half for direct aid to students and half to cover the college’s own COVID expenses.

There have been three editions of HEERF: HEERF I was part of March 2020’s CARES Act. HEERF II was passed in December 2020, a week after the second large stimulus bill. HEERF III was included in current President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The latter had the most money and was the least restrictive in which students it applied to, but HEERF I set the groundwork for the rest and merits a close examination.

The federal government’s formula for determining each institution’s award amount was based heavily on how many federal Pell Grant–eligible students they had. Pell Grants award up to $6,495 per year to undergraduate students based on their financial need. Having existed since 1972, Pell Grants are a convenient and trusted way to determine financial need.

Less than a third (31%) of Canisius undergraduates were Pell Grant recipients in the 2019-20 school year. Nationally, 34% of undergraduates were Pell Grant recipients in that year, the latest year for which data from the National Center for Education Statistics is available. Because of the formula’s (fair) emphasis on Pell as a proxy for financial need, Canisius probably received slightly less per student than the average institution.

Kevin Smith, assistant vice president and director of Student Records and Financial Services, said Canisius administrators were given a little time to prepare; before official passage of the CARES Act, President Hurley and Canisius’s government relations efforts were hearing that colleges and students alike would be receiving money. Meanwhile, Hurley had to decide whether to refund students for housing and meal plan costs. Smith was tasked with determining multiple ways the money could be refunded.

With the institutional stimulus in mind, President Hurley announced on April 17, 2020 that Canisius would be refunding room and board costs retroactive to March 13, 2020, when the halls had originally shut down. An important consideration in the otherwise altruistic decision to refund residents is that Canisius had to spend the relief money on specific eligible expenses such as lost revenue. Canisius could thus easily point to lost room and board revenue to justify its HEERF I as well as HEERF II grants (HEERF II, despite passing in December 2020, retroactively permitted all expenses incurred since March 13 to be used).

Keep in mind that HEERF I’s regulatory language was so strict that some colleges thought they had to keep receipts of all expenses. This turned out not to be the case, but don’t blame colleges for not trusting the feds. At the beginning, the regulations were very specific and “not until the second one [HEERF II] did they start saying tuition, fees, and cost of attendance” were eligible expenses, effectively removing all restrictions, save for students with full scholarships.

A majority of Canisius’s $5.4 million portion merely went towards covering lost revenue from residence halls in 2020. Residence halls were totally shuttered from mid-March to the end of the spring semester in May, and Canisius rightly reimbursed students for the room and board they missed out on. With about $10 million of revenue every year, missing just half of one semester last year cost the college $2.5 million. Though residence halls opened back up in fall 2020, dorming rates have fallen from 42% of undergraduates in 2019 to 33% in 2021, costing the college an additional million dollars.

The Department of Education could have used other methods — such as the National Student Clearinghouse — to give college students the money directly. However, higher education institutions already receive federal grants, and perhaps the Department felt they were a natural way to distribute the funds. Canisius, like most schools, integrated it into student accounts (instead of cutting them checks). Smith, a two-time Canisius alumnus and employee of 26 years in the Financial Services office, noted, “This was the first time we ever did any type of program like this.”

Though the Department of Education didn’t give strict regulations on how schools distributed their money to eligible students (recall that there were citizenship requirements for I and II), it heavily suggested that Pell-eligible students receive more. Smith said schools tried to balance between awarding meaningful amounts and helping as many students as possible while maintaining an emphasis on need (using Pell as a measure).

In order to make the most of the money, Canisius accepted the Department’s recommendation to prioritize Pell recipients. Asked if HEERF I awards were based on financial need, Smith said, “Not at all, … [though] Pell students were prioritized first.” International students couldn’t access HEERF I and II, which required that students be eligible for federal aid and be U.S. citizens, but Canisius set up a separate, donation-funded pool for these students, and let them know that a third round would be coming under the comparatively less-restrictive Biden administration. International students compose 5% of the student body, and the Canisius Emergency Relief Fund raised $181,645 to support them.

Canisius used a different formula for each batch. The review team, composed of Smith, Associate Director of Student Records and Financial Services Mary Koehneke, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Fatima Rodriguez Johnson, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Connie Pileri and Assistant Vice President for Student Development and Academic Success Dr. Mark Harrington, was heavily involved in HEERF I.

Pell students received an initial $500 in addition to whatever money they were awarded for eligible expenses, and then once “applications stopped coming in, we took the remaining amount and distributed it to all the Pell students,” Smith recalled. His team’s involvement would wane as formulas were developed and followed for the next two tranches of cash.

Apparently inspired by John 16:24 — “ask and you will receive” —, the policy for HEERF II was to grant however much money each student requested (based on eligible expenses). “HEERF II didn’t need a committee, because they [the Department of Education] loosened up on the regulations.” Instead, students asked for a certain amount, and that figure was rounded down to standard grants of $250, $500, $750, $1,000, $1,250 or $1,500. The trusting policy did require that students be specific in listing expenses, so that “we had as much information as possible to verify why we have them that amount.”

I was curious if some students asked for absurd amounts, but Smith said the maximum requests were for fairly reasonable sums of $3,000 or $4,000. Interestingly, “Some people asked for like $150, because that’s all they needed.” Some even turned down grant money, requesting that their portion go to needier students. Go Griffs, indeed!

HEERF III was a boon for students and administrators alike; any student was eligible, and administrators didn’t have to strenuously determine eligibility. This was the biggest pot — more than HEERF I and II combined. In fact, there is still $616,290 left to be claimed by students.

Smith advises all students to contact his office if you haven’t been awarded HEERF III money yet. If you normally receive a Pell grant, you will get $1,500. If you don’t receive a Pell grant, you will receive $1,200 (full-time students) or $500 for part-time students. If they can’t disburse all the money during the rest of the fall semester or during the winter intersession (which only has 60-70 students), they might reopen it for spring semester students. With a HEERF IV not in the cards, this will be the last chance to claim money.

Some logistical changes were made as Canisius fine-tuned the student stimulus rollouts. According to Smith, during “the first go-round, there was no option to apply it to your bill.” This was changed for HEERF II and III, though most students asked for a refund rather than have it applied directly to their bill. HEERF I and II also had “tighter windows” because there was simply less money. Unfortunately, HEERF I and II ran out quickly, while HEERF III has hundreds of thousands left unclaimed.

I asked about the seemingly low graduate student participation. The data are stark: undergraduates participation rates were half again that of graduate students. Smith pointed to possible “reservations about being eligible,” but he also said they might not “be as connected as undergraduates are,” noting that billing is also missed more frequently by graduate students.

But the money is what’s important, and that tells of a smaller gap: graduate students make up 21% of students and have received 18% of funds. Though fewer applied, they received more per applicant. Weighted so part-time students were counted as 1/3 full-time students (as they are in federal data), the typical undergraduate applicant got $3,200; the typical graduate applicant got $3,500.

This appears a fair balance. Graduate school costs more, yet undergraduates didn’t have to fight over a finite pool simply because more of their peers applied. However, it was odd to have so many graduate students — many of whom are presumably seeking administrative jobs — simply fail to read or respond to Smith’s repeated emails.

While lackluster participation rates make our rollout appear inefficient, Canisius has actually distributed HEERF funds faster than other local schools. As part of the Certification and Agreement contract with the Department of Education, institutions must report how they have spent their institutional portion of HEERF every quarter. Though not strictly required, many institutions have also provided the percentage of their student portion that has been distributed to students.

By Sept. 30, 2021, the end of the last quarter, Canisius had disbursed $1.9 million in HEERF III funds to 1,953 students — 61% of its funds were distributed less than a month after disbursements began. By that date, Daemen reported that 49.5% of its funds had been distributed. U.B.: 0%. Buffalo State: 0%. St. John Fisher, SUNY Erie and D’Youville — among other local colleges — have declined to report this percentage. The only local school more efficient than Canisius has been St. Bonaventure: they have distributed 100% of HEERF III funds by Nov. 11, 2021, whereas Canisius had 20% left to go as of Dec. 1, 2021.

On Oct. 8, Niagara reported to the federal government that no HEERF III funds had yet been disbursed to students. Moreover, at that date, “Niagara University has not yet determined how the awards will be disbursed to students” and “No guidance has yet been issued to students.” Despite their late start, all funds have now been disbursed.

In a Dec. 6 statement to The Griffin, Niagara’s Office of Student Records and Financial Services said, “When the first quarterly report was due, we had not yet spent any HEERF III funds. However, since then we have awarded out our allotment and the next quarterly report will reflect that.” In a follow-up email, they stated, “Everyone who was eligible for this round was notified of their amount on 10/13/21 and it took us about a month to actually disburse all of the money due to the large volume of checks.”

Recognizing that many of these institutions are larger, I do not allege especial sluggishness or corruption. I contend that money is more valuable the sooner it is received, and that efficiency in this matter is a sign of dexterity in others. Canisius applied this financial Band-Aid as fast as seemingly possible. The College has done its part; now students have to get themselves to the finish line. Smith is practically begging those who haven’t to apply in order to finish out the funds, though he has a plan to distribute them next semester if needed.

HEERF is the financial manifestation of COVID’s mark on Canisius. Other, non-financial impacts were felt; class quality was unavoidably worse, the social life notably lacked a social aspect and — this is good! — there were almost no colds or flus circulating around campus. But classes are returning in person, clubs are back in full force and colds are again an unwelcome companion. In addition to community members lost forever to COVID, many were laid off.

To use a lazy metaphor, HEERF was a Band-Aid. (If inflation continues apace, Band-Aids might actually cost $10 million soon…) The fired faculty won’t be rehired. Enrollment will keep dropping. But it helps the student body heal. The institution itself was kept from further financial bleeding. Policy decisions on how to manage the budget deficit aside, in this instance, Can-isius could. Resident students got their money back, all students had the opportunity to receive extra money and Canisius demonstrated laudable administrative capacity.

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