Pandemic Relief Spending and Recovery Strategies: Findings From a Survey of Community Colleges in Six States

Pandemic Relief Spending and Recovery Strategies:  Findings From a Survey of Community Colleges in Six States

In order to assist higher education institutions and their students during the pandemic, the federal government established the Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER) Fund, which directed over $75 billion to institutions of higher education—including nearly $25 billion to community colleges—over a three-year period. The U.S. Department of Education worked on a rapid timeline to distribute these funds to institutions, which they could use to provide direct aid to students facing financial challenges and cover institutional costs related to the pandemic.

Drawing on a survey of community colleges in six states—California, Michigan, New York (State University of New York [SUNY] colleges), Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas—this report provides insight into the specific pandemic recovery activities colleges implemented, colleges’ perceptions of how successful HEER funds were in addressing student and institutional needs during the pandemic, and colleges’ views of unmet needs. The institutional survey was completed by 170 out of a total of 265 community colleges in the six states.

Key findings from the report:

  • Colleges spent nearly all the HEER funds they received. Given the large amount of HEER funding and the fact that colleges did not need to submit a proposal and budget for how they would use the funds, it should not be assumed that colleges would have spent all the money they received. Yet colleges spent nearly all the funds they received by the time the HEER program ended in June 2023.
  • HEER funds met a variety of student and institutional needs during the pandemic. Colleges had relatively few problems using the funds and felt that the aid was successful in mitigating student and institutional hardships.
  • Colleges focused on retaining existing students; they employed a variety of methods to support students in need. Colleges used HEER funds to support and retain existing (pre-pandemic) students rather than to recruit new students. They focused on supporting students with financial exigencies, including those experiencing food and housing insecurity. They used institutional aid to forgive debt owed to the college and to provide food, housing, and childcare assistance.
  • Spending patterns suggest that colleges experienced similar challenges during the pandemic and often prioritized the same objectives. Despite differences in state contexts and institutional settings, colleges tended to allocate funds in similar ways. For example, most colleges used aid for campus safety and technology hardware. Expenditure patterns also shifted over time in similar ways, indicating that colleges were responsive to evolving needs.
  • Expenditures related to campus safety and technology remained strong but decreased in frequency over time; expenditures to support students’ mental health increased in frequency. Mental health services was the only expenditure category that increased in frequency in each of the three years of funding, likely reflecting the toll the pandemic took on students’ mental health.
  • Comparing pre- and post-pandemic spending, HEER funds had the most impact on increasing support for technology hardware, high-speed internet, and housing assistance. Colleges used HEER funds both to fund existing services and to begin offering new ones. Fewer than a third of colleges had services in place to provide technology hardware, high-speed internet, and housing assistance before the pandemic; many more did so afterward.
  • Concerns about the end of HEER funding and priorities for future funding expose a need for continued flexible resources to address students’ financial needs. Colleges’ main concern about the end of HEER funding was that it would limit their ability to support students during an emergency. Their top priority for using future funding was additional student aid.
  • Rural and vocational/technical colleges (as defined by the Carnegie Classification) may have had fewer resources prior to the pandemic and may be in greater need of additional support. Colleges in towns and rural areas and colleges focused on technical training were less likely to offer a number of supports both pre- and post-pandemic. Rural colleges were also less likely to report having received additional funding for pandemic recovery from sources other than HEER funds.

Overall, while the survey findings suggest that HEER largely met the goals for which it was intended, they also point to the importance of addressing systemic challenges facing community college students and the institutions that serve them. Now that the immediate crisis of the pandemic has passed and HEER funding has ended, there is an opportunity to think strategically about the investments that are needed to promote student success over the long term, particularly for underserved and financially vulnerable students who are the most at risk of stopping out or not enrolling in the first place.