California’s colleges and universities will see more than $1.7 billion from the new federal stimulus law to help stave off the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but they say more is needed.
At least half of that money will go directly to students, many of whom have watched their campuses close, their jobs disappear and their schools shift in-person classes online in the past few weeks.
Three California State University campuses are in the top 10 nationally in stimulus dollars awarded, which is mostly based on a campus’s number of low-income students receiving federal Pell Grants. The current maximum Pell Grant is about $6,200 for students.
College leaders say the federal funding is a good first step, but they’ll need more in the weeks ahead as the pandemic continues and their expenses rise. They also fear devastating economic impacts if enrollments drop.
The money is part of the $2.2 trillion CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act, of which about $14 billion is for higher education, with $12.56 billion split between emergency grants to students and money to colleges for expenses directly related to “the disruption of campus operations” because of the pandemic. The funding that is expected to go to emergency aid for students was released to colleges Thursday with the other half expected to be released shortly.
An EdSource analysis of the funding based on enrollment shows that the aid’s formula favors large public institutions where students attend full-time and a hefty share are low-income and eligible for the Pell Grant. As a result, the California State University system will receive $1,065 per student, University of California $925 per student, and the California Community Colleges $393 per student.
The formula slights community colleges because of their populations — high numbers of part-time students, noncredit students and students who don’t receive Pell Grants. Only about 20 percent of community college students receive Pell Grants.
The breakdown in California is:
- University of California’s ten institutions will receive $260,289,151.
- California State University’s 23 campuses will receive $525,326,834.
- The 115 California community colleges will receive $577,140,673.
- Non-profit colleges and universities will receive a total of $156,685,415.
- For-profit institutions will receive $170,041,148.
Of that amount, CSU Northridge is expected to receive $44.6 million, the largest allocation in the state to an individual campus. That’s mainly because of its overall size and the large numbers of low-income students who receive federal Pell Grants — about 20,600, or about two-thirds of its total student body. Along with CSU Long Beach and Fullerton campuses, Northridge ranks in the top 10 nationally of colleges receiving the most stimulus money.
Campus president Dianne F. Harrison said she is grateful for the money but the school could face stunning future losses that go far beyond the new grants.
She and other campus officials estimated that the school has lost about $19.5 million so far. Among the biggest-ticket items: refunding student fees for dorms, dining plans and parking; extra spending for technology and training in the switch to online education; anti-virus cleaning of facilities; and loss of national athletic league revenues. The funds will cover the current losses, with the other half going to student aid.
After that, they see big worries.
Higher education officials worry about enrollment drops
“Obviously this is great news anytime there is a little light in the tunnel financially speaking,” Harrison told EdSource, referring to the federal funds. But she said she remains deeply concerned about what could happen if enrollment drops significantly in the fall and no more federal funds are forthcoming.
CSU Northridge is running projections about potential financial and enrollment declines. A worst-case scenario — up to a 20 percent drop in enrollment if regular face-to-face classes don’t resume in the fall — could mean losses of $100 million in the fall semester, she said. “That’s a huge potential budget hit if our current students aren’t retained and students we are expecting to show up in the fall decide to wait out a year or do something else. We just don’t know the effect on enrollment.”
The campus operating budget this year was $487 million, with half coming from student tuition and fees and half from state funds. That does not include auxiliary operations such as dorms and parking garages.
At Cal Poly Pomona, the $30.9 million federal aid “is a start and we are happy about that but it’s not enough,” said Frances Teves, assistant vice president for government and external affairs. She said the campus still has not tallied its losses and extra costs so far, but refunds and emergency spending on technology, including helping students who don’t have computers or Wi-Fi, are proving very expensive. About half of its 24,000 undergraduates are eligible for Pell Grants.
She is hoping for additional federal funding too since her campus also is expecting some decline in fall enrollment, particularly among international students.
Many of the state’s community college officials say much of the stimulus money will go to supplying students with laptops, Wi-Fi and direct aid to help them stay in school.
“We still need a lot of resources and many colleges are expecting to utilize this for technology equipment for students or retention grants for students to ensure they can come back, remain in our institutions and stay on their educational paths,” said Lizette Navarette, vice chancellor for finance and facilities planning for the community college system.
Much of the funding will help students with child and health care needs, food and housing.
The Peralta Community College District, which is home to Berkeley City College, Laney College and Merritt College in Oakland and College of Alameda. The district is purchasing 9,000 Chromebooks it plans to provide to students for about $3.8 million, said Carla Walter, vice-chancellor of finance and administration, for the district.
“When you compare that with the approximate $1.5 million to $2 million to each college, you can see how that isn’t enough,” she said. All four Peralta colleges would see about $7.7 million total from the stimulus.
It’s also hard for colleges to predict what their enrollments and budgets will look like for the summer and fall sessions, even as they begin planning for those terms.
Stimulus falls short for community colleges
For the community colleges, the stimulus funding also falls short because only 20 percent receive Pell Grants, said Jake Brymner, state and federal policy director for the Campaign for College Opportunity. And high numbers of their students are part-time or noncredit.
One other population not counted — undocumented students, who are not eligible for federal financial aid such as the Pell Grant because of their immigration status. Lande Ajose, who is Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior policy advisor for higher education, said she welcomed the federal aid but is concerned about the large numbers of undocumented college students in the state.
“While our colleges will certainly benefit and will be able to cushion some of the blow of what’s happening economically, it’s not going to account for every student in our systems who has need,” Ajose said.
It’s estimated that more than 50,000 undocumented students are enrolled in the community colleges and possibly more than 80,000 across all California institutions, Brymner said.
“Those are students with reduced employment options,” he said. “And while these students are eligible for state financial aid or institutional financial aid they might have fewer options in this current economic landscape.”
And community colleges don’t just serve students who receive Pell Grants or attended classes for credit, said Bonnie Ann Dowd, executive vice chancellor of business and technology services for the San Diego Community College District. The district will receive about $14 million in stimulus funding for the San Diego City, Mesa and Miramar campuses.
“Noncredit students are being ignored in this stimulus because they don’t have to file for financial aid,” Dowd said. “However, many of them could be our neediest students.”
But she’s hopeful that whether the federal stimulus comes up short, the state will provide additional money to the colleges.
That may not be possible given the state’s funding situation.
With state tax revenues taking a hit and some of the state’s emergency reserves spent during the pandemic, public colleges and universities in California face uncertainty about state funding for next year, Ajose said.
Asked whether higher education should anticipate smaller allocations from the general revenue than proposed in January, Ajose said: “I think that’s entirely possible.”
However, she said that the governor appreciates the important role higher education will play if the nation falls into a recession and “if we need to rebuild, how higher education is a part of that fundamental proposition and can help Californians make their lives better.”
California’s private nonpublic and for-profit institutions
The new stimulus funding also provides relief to the state’s private and for-profit colleges. In California, San Joaquin Valley College, a two-year for-profit institution that has about 5,000 students, will receive $12,104,128. Seventy-one percent of the college’s students receive Pell Grants and the college’s annual cost of attendance is on average $27,819, according to federal data. The for-profit college ranked tenth nationally in higher education stimulus money.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin co-wrote a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking that the department prohibit for-profit colleges from using the stimulus funding for any purposes that would boost their profits and not directly aid students. The for-profits, like other colleges, must use the money to provide emergency aid to students and cover any costs from making changes to their instruction because of the pandemic.
At UC, the costs of tuition and mandatory systemwide fees total $12,750 for California undergraduates, but other costs such as housing, food, books and health insurance can bring the total to about $35,000. At CSU, tuition is $5,742 annually for full-time undergraduates who are California residents and total costs including housing can rise to about $30,000 a year. A full-time student at the community colleges would pay $552 a semester, but with other living expenses the total price could reach $19,600.
For some traditional private institutions, the financial situation mirrors that of the public sector.
The University of La Verne, a private-non-profit school that enrolls 2,500 traditional-age undergraduates and about 5,500 graduate and professional school students, is slated to receive about $5.6 million in federal aid. About half of its undergraduates receive Pell grants, according to Avo Kechichian, the university’s chief financial officer.
The school, which has its main campus on the eastern side of Los Angeles County, already has refunded about $3.3 million in dorm, dining and other activities fees and has incurred about $2 million in switching to online classes and other emergency costs, he said. So, the portion of the federal grant that the school can retain will cover only about half of that $5 million total.
“If we continue working remotely next fall, it will be much, much worse,” Kechichian said. The school is projecting that a 10 percent decline in enrollment, which could cause a $48 million loss.
The next few months present great uncertainty on whether students whose families suffer unemployment in this emergency “are going to afford the price of private higher education,” he said.
During a recession, college enrollments usually increase as some people decide they need better training and the job market can wait. “But this is a pandemic, not a normal recession,” Kechichian said.
EdSource data journalist Daniel J. Willis contributed to this report.