Beginning in March 2020, when COVID-19 was discovered in the United States, the federal government stepped up to help colleges and universities make significant pivots in their operations to protect the health of their campus communities and continue helping students achieve their academic goals.

The Higher Education Emergency Relief Act (HEERF) has provided institutions throughout the country with student emergency funds that institutions award directly to students to assist with expenses they incurred as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, institutional funds were provided to universities to help cover COVID-related expenses and purchases necessary to keep campus operations going. Universities are required to justify how the funds are used to address the effects of, or the prevention of, the virus.

Gerald Hector, Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance at UCF
Gerald Hector, Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance

Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority Serving Institutions, including Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) like UCF, were granted an additional allotment of funds. Like with the other funds, institutions had the same requirements to follow the strict guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Education. Apart from HEERF funding, UCF’s experience with Minority Serving Institutions has led to increased graduation rates and higher social mobility rankings, transforming the future for our students and their families for generations to come.

At UCF, we have awarded $156.6 million directly to students. Examples of how we have spent our institutional dollars include adding UVC lighting and upgraded filters to enhance our HVAC systems, funding additional cleaning and disinfecting measures throughout the pandemic and purchasing equipment such as touchless faucets and hand-sanitizer stations and masks that we distributed to the campus community. Other funds helped to purchase technology and equipment that enabled UCF to make the transition to additional remote learning courses during the early stages of the pandemic.

This program has been funded in three installments, or tranches: (i) CARES Act, (ii) CRRSAA (Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act), and (iii) ARP (American Rescue Plan).

Allowed expenses for the institutional dollars from the Department of Education include:

  1. Expenses associated with coronavirus (including lost revenue, reimbursement for expenses already incurred, technology costs associated with a transition to remote education, faculty and staff trainings, and payroll costs as defined in No. 5).
  2. Additional emergency financial aid grants to students.
  3. Evidenced-based practices to monitor and suppress coronavirus in accordance with public health guidelines.
  4. Outreach to financial aid applicants about the opportunity to receive financial aid adjustments due to the recent unemployment of a family member or independent student, or other circumstances.
  5. Certain payroll costs, including employee benefits, if such costs are newly associated with coronavirus, and the costs were incurred on or after March 13, 2020, the date of declaration of the national emergency due to the coronavirus. Consistent with these principles, an institution may also use ARP funds to pay students for internships and job-training experiences that are aligned with local coronavirus-related recovery needs.

Here at UCF, we received a total of $314.4 million in HEERF funds, broken down as follows:
1. CARES Act – $54.8 million
a. Student Emergency Funds      $25.5 million
b. Institutional Funds                    $25.5 million
c. HSI-Related Funds                     $3.8 million

2. CRRSSA – $94.5 million
a. Student Emergency Funds      $25.5 million
b. Institutional Funds                    $63.3 million
c. HSI-Related Funds                     $5.7 million

3. ARP – $165.1 million
a. Student Emergency Funds       $79.3 million
b. Institutional Funds                     $76.1 million
c. HSI-Related Funds                      $9.7 million

The following is a breakdown of the uses of the $314.4 million in total funds UCF has received through Dec. 31:

Student financial assistance and non-financial support.                $156.6 million
Remote Instruction and academic course delivery                          $8.7 million
COVID-19 response and campus preparedness                                 $32.3 million
Technology enhancements                                                                   $17.8 million
Other Approved Uses (such as recouping lost revenues)                $32.4 million
Unallocated                                                                                               $66.6 million

As of the writing of this article, there are approximately $26.6 million of proposals under review that would reduce the unallocated section of the report noted above. We also have the option to provide further assistance to our students who have exceptional need as we get closer to the May 2022 deadline to ensure we properly steward the funds provided to us. We will work closely with our Financial Aid Office to utilize any additional funds in line with the federal guidelines. That assistance can possibly address the remaining unallocated funds.

We are experiencing supply chain issues that could mean allocated HEERF dollars for some major projects may not be able to be spent by May 2022. For those funds, we have the option to request a one-year extension under extenuating circumstances. Because we request the funds on a reimbursement basis from the Department of Education, staying within the guidelines and in close contact with representatives there is key for our management of this program.

As we get closer to the May 2022 deadline to spend the funds, we continue to monitor our spending. Working with a broad constituency across the campus, we also continue to look at ways we can best utilize any remaining unallocated funds. The DOE sent out additional guidance on Jan. 20 about how we can assist students, faculty and staff. We will explore all options available to us to allocate the remaining funds.

If you have suggestions on expenses we should consider to address operations impacted by COVID 19, you can contact Ms. Kathy Mitchell, Associate Vice President for Financial Initiatives, at [email protected].

We are all in this together, and over the past two years, our campus community has been resilient and strong. My commitment to you is that we will continue our focused efforts to spend our HEERF dollars in line with federal guidance and in support of our campus community.