Federal Stimulus Innovation in Higher Education: Examples from the Field

Monday, November 8, 2021
Kanler Cumbass

Over the last year and a half, higher education institutions have been challenged in unforeseen ways – a global pandemic, revenue loss, and enrollment declines.  Nevertheless, despite these challenges, postsecondary education and state leaders have a tremendous opportunity to reimagine current systems and uplift learners through strategic use of the federal stimulus provided by the CARES, CRRSA, and ARP Acts. In particular, the higher education emergency relief funds (HEERF) equips leaders with the necessary resources to promote and engage with innovative solutions to improve enrollment, completion, and employment rates.

Approximately $77 billion dollars has been disbursed to institutions for student aid and institutional support through HEERF, with half of those dollars providing direct aid to students. Institutional leaders can and should use their remaining resources to prioritize efforts to close equity gaps in access and attainment, provide support services for adult or post-traditional learners seeking a new career, and strategically target emergency grant aid to individuals with need. 

Based on ESG’s national scan of how institutions are using their stimulus funds, here are three notable and potentially replicable examples of how institutional and state leaders can reimagine systems and programs to improve the quality of higher education:  

  1. Promote completion of high-quality, short-term credentials aligned with workforce needs. The City Colleges of Chicago’s Future Ready Program currently offers students the opportunity to obtain short-term credentials at no cost. Using HEERF,  institutions in Chicago have broadened access to credit and continuing education coursework in high-demand fields for Chicagoans. This program is aimed at reengaging students who stopped out during the pandemic and encourages learners to work towards credentials in high-demand fields. In particular, for credit bearing coursework, Future Ready provides students a last-dollar scholarship to cover tuition, while continuing education coursework is provided for free and equips students with an industry-recognized credential. By strategically using funds to re-engage students, and connecting learners to in-demand careers, the City Colleges of Chicago are equipping learners with the tools to access good jobs that lead to private and public socioeconomic mobility. 
  2. Double down on infrastructure and advising systems to address students’ basic needs. Amarillo College, through their Advocacy and Resource Center, continue to double down on the institutions’ No Excuses Poverty initiative, which helped establish an on-campus social services office that not only provides a food pantry and emergency grants, but also case management, academic support, curriculum development, legal aid, and college-wide hiring and evaluation practices. Focusing deeply on adult learners, Amarillo College’s leadership has made addressing students’ basic needs a top priority using HEERF funds; and, institutional leaders have reimagined current services and programs on campus to address the needs of their particular students. For example, leadership at Amarillo asked students to complete a self-assessment report to better understand every student’s unique circumstances. In some cases, students were paired with a social worker for additional support beyond emergency aid. Further, to handle the influx of need caused by the pandemic, Amarillo hired additional personnel to support students during this time. From their intentional work, Amarillo College is shifting the narrative and has placed emphasis on using the federal stimulus dollars to benefit learners in more ways than one.
  3. Invest in student retention and success coaches. Leaders in Connecticut leveraged the federal stimulus to address and expedite pre-pandemic priorities that have only been exacerbated in the last year and a half. Governor Lamont, working closely with institutions of higher education, decided to use a portion of ARP Act funds to invest in additional Guided Pathways advisors for the Connecticut Community College System. This model strives to significantly lower the student-to-advisor ratio, help students obtain credentials, improve seamless transferability to four-year institutions, and attain jobs relevant to labor market needs. By increasing the number of advisors, students can have more intentional conversations about their futures and desired pathways. From enrollment to graduation, strong advising prepares students for the challenges and uncertainties ahead. Moreover, increased advising is a proven mechanism to increase retention rates, contributing to an institution’s bottom line and the sustainability of the system’s new advisors. 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted persistent concerns in higher education enrollment, completion, and workforce alignment. Now, through recovery efforts, federal legislation designates the necessary resources for institutions to rethink systems, programs, and services that have a tremendous impact on student success and economic mobility. While the examples listed above are not exhaustive, they provide a starting point to an on-going conversation among higher education and state leaders regarding innovative use of the federal stimulus.

In the future, ESG plans to release an in-depth overview of two examples listed above – Amarillo College and City Colleges of Chicago – from previous interviews we conducted with leadership within the organizations. Further, we hope to continuously aggregate examples of innovation and share those with the field at large. To help us, join the discussion! Please email kcumbass@edstrategy.org to share the reforms you are witnessing using the federal stimulus, and especially in relation to higher education emergency relief funds.