Mike Brake | May 26, 2021
How Oklahoma colleges are spending $812 million in Covid relief
Oklahoma colleges and universities have already received, or will soon put in the bank, some $812,595,871 in federal funds from the various measures to offset costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
While there are various restrictions on how those dollars can be spent, it is apparent that each individual institution is deciding where the money will go and whether students will directly benefit from it.
The cornucopia of Washington dollars has flowed from three distinct pieces of legislation: the original Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act; the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA); and the American Rescue Plan (ARP). Together they created a three-phase fund known as the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF I, II, and III).
One question surrounding this vast influx of federal dollars centers on how much students will benefit. It turns out that the answer depends on each institution’s decisions on where and how to apply the funds.
At the University of Central Oklahoma, which receives a total of $64,277,999 from all three HEERF sources, Adrienne Nobles, vice president for communications and public affairs, said the federal funding “has been and will continue to be used in a variety of ways.”
Some costs involved the purchase of personal protective equipment and the installation of protective barriers around the campus.
“HEERF II will be used to offset the significant amount of lost revenue associated with a decline in enrollment, residential students, and absence of events,” Nobles said. “HEERF III has not yet been awarded so plans for these funds have not yet been finalized. It is expected that a portion of these funds will cover the remaining portion of lost revenue.”
Nobles said it is also likely that future funds will be used to help pay some student outstanding tuition and fee balances.
Nobles said that “pro rata refunds were issued to students affected by the campus closure during the Spring 2020 semester for housing, dining, and parking.” Further refunds were issued for those costs associated with the period between Thanksgiving and winter break.
Each individual institution is deciding where the money will go and whether students will directly benefit from it.
UCO campus housing has already reopened and the school plans to return to normal in-person classes in the fall of 2021.
At the University of Oklahoma, funds from the three sources have been or will be applied to a wide range of costs, according to Kesha Keith, director of media relations, marketing, and communications.
OU reported receiving $17.9 million in CARES Act funding, about half of which “went to student aid,” Keith said. That included $5.26 million in refunds for housing and food in the spring of 2020, $157,000 in parking fee refunds, and $1.3 million for COVID testing.
The university drew $27.88 million from the omnibus spending bill under HEERF II, of which “$8.96 million was designed (by the bill) as student aid and was awarded directly to students in April 2021,” Keith said. “The remaining $18.91 million was awarded as institutional aid.” So far OU has only requested $6.2 million of those funds, much of it to offset lost revenue from student housing. The student aid awards are limited to those receiving student loan assistance, according to information from the U. S. Department of Education.
Keith said the remaining available funds will be requested “in accordance with Department of Education established guidelines for revenue loss associated with enrollment declines and COVID-19 protocols” and a long list of other costs, including hiring additional faculty “to necessitate physical distancing in in-person classrooms” and Zoom licensing for distance learning.
Keith said OU expects $50 million from the pending American Rescue Plan disbursement, half for institutional support and the other half for student aid. She said the still-pending rules will most likely mirror those governing the omnibus bill.
Overall, Keith said student aid took and will take the form primarily of refunds for housing and meals. Students showing “exceptional need” can apply for and receive assistance with their bursar balance.
OU is also planning a return to fall in-person classes.
At Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, campus spokeswoman Shannon Rigsby said officials were still working through federal rules and guidelines pertaining to the programs to be funded through an anticipated total of $88,959,426 from the three HEERF distributions.
“More than half of the funds will be used for student aid,” she said. The remaining portion “is intended to be used for institutional costs and lost revenue due to COVID-19 and our response to it,” Rigsby said.
She said most fall courses will return to in-person formats, though some instructors may offer hybrid courses with online aspects.
“Students are actively signing up for Fall ’21 with Residential Life and space is still available,” Rigsby added. “Campus housing anticipates operations similar to 2019 with in-person events and activities.”
Inquiries to Oklahoma City University and Oklahoma Christian University received no response.
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.