At their April 22 meeting, multiple members of PCC’s College Council expressed their frustration with new guidelines from the federal Department of Education (ED) regarding the disbursement of federal stimulus money.
“Let me just go on record: Betsy DeVos is a pain in the ass,” said Dr. Michael Bush, assistant superintendent and vice president of business and college services. “The legislature passed this really neat thing for higher education and then the Department of Education got a hold of it.”
PCC has received $15.2 million in aid from the federal government, half of which is slated for institutional use. The rest is being disbursed as grants to students.
These funds are part of the Coronavirus Aid, Response, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the $2 trillion stimulus package approved by Congress in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Signed into law on Mar. 27, it is the largest federal stimulus ever passed in the country.
“The hope was we were going to be able to use this to prop the college up for the losses that we were currently facing as well as the expenses and be able to use this over a year’s period,” Bush explained.
Assistant Superintendent and Vice President of Instruction Dr. Terry Giugni asked if PCC can use some of the money to complete delayed spring semester lab classes over the summer.
“When we can come back,” said Giugni, “whether that’s in the summer or in the fall, we will need to commit some of our resources to finishing spring. That will have an impact on both what we’re offering in the summer as well as in the fall.”
But the rules are still murky. According to Bush, it is not yet clear if funds allocated for the spring semester have to be spent in the spring or if it could pay for activities taking place later. Therefore, any schedule of classes would have to be drawn up without a complete picture of how it would be funded.
“Essentially, we can use the money for any expenses to convert to online education and we can backfill last fees,” said Bush. “So if we issued a refund, we can claim that. We could replace all the Chromebooks we gave to students, we can replace devices we gave out to faculty. We cannot claim any of the costs for staff going to remote work. None of that is reimbursed.”
Once institutional costs are identified and covered, any leftover money from the institutional side will be transferred to the portion intended for student grants, according to Bush.
PCC Superintendent/President Dr. Erika Endrijones indicated that the ED is encouraging colleges to use more of the money for student grants than for institutional costs. However, this will be difficult because of another gap in federal guidance.
The department accounts for the institutional half of the money as a federal grant, while the half to be given to students is classified as financial aid. At this time there are no instructions on how to reclassify the money when that carry-over occurs. Still, the college is planning to spread the money out.
In an email announcing the arrival of CARES Act money on April 29, PCC Spokesperson Alex Boekelheide gave some preliminary estimates of how the money will be spent in the medium-term.
“The college plans to distribute just under $5 million in direct CARES aid this spring, while holding some funds in reserve to address future needs as the public health emergency continues indefinitely,” said Boekelheide. “An additional $630,000 in emergency funding will be available to help with issues students face, accessible through a unified application process.”
The Council hopes that they will receive that guidance before late summer when they expect to know the total institutional spending amount.
On the student grant side of the CARES Act money, the council has had to contend with a slow trickle of changes to the guidance that has slowed the process of determining who is eligible.
Student Services had already finalized a list of students in need of financial assistance by Monday, April 20. But by the time the Council met the following Wednesday, the federal government had updated the eligibility requirements. Student Services now has to go back and redraw those lists.
Students must be “financial aid eligible” to qualify for these grants, according to Dr. Cynthia Olivo, Dean of Student Services. That means they must have already filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and been approved.
There are many factors that could disqualify one from receiving federal student aid, including having a criminal record, not registering with selective services, not maintaining satisfactory academic progress, or not being a documented U.S. citizen.
The new rules tighten restrictions and as a result, fewer students are eligible to receive aid. The list is already down 2,000 students from its first draft.
In his email, Boekelheide laid out some of the criteria that students must meet to access the grants.
“Funds are being targeted to students with the highest financial need, with students taking a full schedule of classes receiving larger grants,” said Boekelheide. “Students can access details about their own grant package through the college’s LancerPoint system.”
The CARES student grants will be taxable, and will reduce the amount that recipients can deduct from their taxable income for higher education expenses.
Dr. Olivo still expects around 5,000 students to receive CARES Act grants. She is working to figure out how to include students who have begun the FAFSA process but have not completed it yet.
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