COVID-19 relief bill offers help to Oregon colleges and universities

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Dec. 30, 2020 11:58 p.m.

Included in the federal coronavirus relief package passed earlier this week is more than $20 billion for higher education. For Oregon, that means extra funding for institutions that have seen major drops in enrollment and revenue during the pandemic.

That additional funding from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act is especially important for Oregon community colleges, which have seen a roughly 23% decrease in enrollment since last year, according to data from Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.


“It’s a big deal,” Casey White-Zollman, communications director for the Oregon Community College Association, said of the federal funding. “Colleges have had a significant enrollment drop over this year … being able to recoup some of that lost revenue, it’s not going to be the silver bullet that fixes everything, but it’s certainly going to be helpful moving forward.”

OCCA said it does not yet know the exact amount of funding Oregon will receive, but this new federal relief package offers more assistance to higher education than the CARES Act last March, which gave Oregon higher education institutions a total of $127 million. Of that, $40 million went to Oregon community colleges specifically, the association said.

“What it means is that community colleges will have additional support that they weren’t counting on,” Cam Preus, executive director of OCCA, said of the CRRSA Act. “That means better service for students and communities.”

This new relief package also allocates money in a different way from the CARES Act, which benefits community colleges.

According to OCCA, in the CARES Act earlier this year, the allocation of funding was more heavily based on full-time enrolled students. In this new package, funding will be equally focused on full-time students and “headcount,” which accounts for the total number of students enrolled at an institution, including those only taking a few credits.

“The reason that allocation formula is so important to community colleges is that there are many more part-time students rather than full-time students,” Preus said. “At some colleges, it takes six or seven, as many as eight students, to make one full-time student; that’s how part-time they are.”

OCCA said after the CARES Act passed in March, it took about six to eight weeks for the funds to get to colleges. The association said it has not yet heard how long the new funds will take to be distributed, but “the sooner the better.”

White-Zollman said taking some of the “burden” off of community colleges will help to re-energize Oregon’s economy.

“Our community workforce and our industries are going to look different post-COVID-19, post-wildfire devastation than they’ve ever looked before,” she said. “So having the colleges receive some financial support will better enable us to get that engine chugging along again and really help our economy come back to life hopefully as things improve in 2021.”


Federal help could bolster limited state funding

The extra dollars from the coronavirus relief package could help shore up state funding levels. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s recommended budget released in early December proposed flat funding for colleges and universities, meaning they are set to receive the same funding they got for the 2019-21 budget cycle.

That proposed state funding puts Oregon community colleges about $60 million short of what they need to maintain their current service levels, without big increases to tuition, OCCA said.

Preus said it is unclear if the federal coronavirus relief package will completely balance the community colleges’ budget, but regardless she said OCCA will pursue a bill in the upcoming legislative session to request additional money from the state.

“The stimulus is a short-term shot in the arm,” Preus said. “I would rather hang my hat on the state of Oregon rising to the occasion and funding post-secondary education, and particularly community colleges, at the level we need. … In order to get Oregon back on its feet economically, we’re going to need to make those investments.”

Enrollment at Oregon’s public universities has generally fared better than at community colleges during the pandemic. But with an average enrollment decrease of close to 4%, university leaders are still relieved to get additional federal funding.

“Oregonians are hurting, and our university students, faculty, and staff are included among those facing hardship during this challenging time. This relief can’t come soon enough,” the Oregon Council of Presidents, a coalition of Oregon’s public university leadership, said in a statement.

The new CRRSA Act also includes direct support to students affected by the pandemic. Preus with OCCA said some of the funding will go to wrap-around services for students like assistance for transportation, rent, food, books and technology.

More generally, the omnibus appropriations bill, signed by President Trump at the same time as the CRRSA Act, also included some benefits for students like simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and increasing the maximum award for a Pell Grant by $150.

While both the coronavirus relief package and the omnibus bill included help for institutions and students, OCCA said there were some missing items they wished to see included like loan forgiveness provisions and liability protections for higher education.

Though, on the state level, the Oregon legislature earlier this month partially tackled the liability issue with House Bill 4402, which offers protections for K-12 schools and community colleges against coronavirus-related lawsuits.

“It does not protect the universities, but it does protect the community colleges,” White-Zollman said. “So we are appreciative of being included in that, and that will help us moving forward.”

In the longer-term picture of recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, Preus said “all eyes are on fall of 2021,” and she’s hopeful to see a boost back in enrollment for community colleges.

“We expect there will be a new normal,” Preus said. “But if we are able to move back to more face-to-face instruction, particularly for career and technical programs, yes, I think enrollment will come back.”