Oregon's colleges to get $228 million in COVID-19 relief money

First published in The Register-Guard on January 9, 2021.

Oregon's colleges and universities will get a needed boost from the newest federal COVID-19 relief and omnibus bill signed Dec. 27 by President Donald Trump. 

The funds from the Consolidated Appropriations Act's $22.7 billion dedicated to higher education across the U.S. comes at a time when low enrollment and other budget problems are cause for concern for Oregon's higher education institutions. 

Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission estimates $228.1 million will come to the state from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, anticipating $102.4 million to public universities, $97.6 million for community colleges and $28.1 million for private institutions. It's not enough to fix the looming budget concerns of many colleges and universities, HECC Executive Director Ben Cannon said. Nearly all of the state's colleges and universities have seen declines in enrollment, which poses problems as many still rely on tuition for the bulk of revenue. The institutions also have lost revenue from areas such as housing and dining, athletic and parking revenues, he said.

The Lane Community College campus is closed to the general public for now with most students taking classes online.

Public universities alone are projecting $327 million in lost revenues since March and through June 2021, Cannon said. This is on top of the approximately $82 million in direct costs public universities estimate to have incurred related to the pandemic. 

"So it certainly helps to fill those gaps. It doesn't fully come close to fulfilling them, but it is a very important investment by Congress in colleges and universities at a really critical time," Cannon said. 

Community colleges getting more

The distribution of the relief will be a bit different than that of the $2.2 trillion CARES act signed by Trump in March.

The formula for these latest relief funds has been "modified to equally weight full-time equivalent student counts and student headcounts," according to Kyle Thomas, HECC director of Legislative and Policy Affairs. The change will mean more resources for community colleges than before, because more of their students are enrolled part-time, he stated. Fall enrollment fell at every community college in the state over the previous year, a HECC report showed.

For Lane Community College, which saw a 22% decline in fall enrollment this year, the reconfigured relief funds will make more operational sense. 

A visiter walks through a deserted Lane Community College campus as most students continue taking classes online.

It takes more resources for community colleges than universities to provide for one full-time equivalent student, LCC Spokesperson Brett Rowlett said, because one full-time equivalent student usually really means two or three students who need one advisor.

"Oregon’s community colleges are experiencing enrollment declines greater than 20% while the costs of delivering quality education continue to increase," said LCC Provost Paul Jarrell in a statement. "We are very grateful for this federal assistance, which will help us better serve students during the pandemic while also making necessary investments for a safe return to campus later this year."

No budget increase will feel like a cut 

Institutions will be required to use at least as many dollars for direct emergency student aid as they were before under the CARES Act, Thomas stated, "however, because institutional allocations are larger in this funding round, less than 50% of total funds are required to be spent in such a manner."

The new relief funds also include $4 billion for a Governor's Emergency Fund, which will distribute money to governors to use as they see fit for their state's needs.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown did not include a funding increase for higher education in her proposed budget for 2021-2023, though she did provide increases for K-12 schools. It's important to still think of the emergency fund and Gov. Brown's proposed budget separately, Cannon said, because the relief funds are to be used for emergency grants to students and shoring up budgets primarily this year, whereas Brown's budget impacts the following year, too.

However, both play into colleges' financial outlooks for the 2021-2022 school year. 

If Brown's proposed budget is approved, it will keep the funding levels for higher education the same as they were this biennium. However, colleges will feel this more as a decrease in funding the first year of the new biennium, according to Jamie Moffitt, University of Oregon's vice president for finance and administration and chief financial officer.

At the last UO Board of Trustees meeting Dec. 3, Moffitt explained that just 49% of state funding is given the first year of the biennium, and 51% is given the following year. 

"What that means that if the biennial budget stays steady, we actually see a cut, because you end up going from the year — which is this year — where we got 51% of the funding, to the first year of the biennium when you're back to 49% of the funding," Moffitt said. "The bottom line is, if the governor's (proposed budget) goes through, then the legislatively approved budget for the UO represents about a $3 million cut for next year."

This is on top of ongoing costs the UO expects to see because of COVID-19 impacts on operations. 

“The University of Oregon greatly appreciates the Oregon delegation that worked to secure funds, which will provide support for immediate basic and critical needs as our students, faculty and staff — and the university — face ongoing hardships,” UO spokesperson Kay Jarvis said in a statement.

Groups representing higher education across the country requested $120 billion, she said, so this is far less than the $22.7 billion granted. 

"The relief funds are a fraction of what is needed to help the university and students manage the current crisis and begin to recover,” she said.

"We have experienced increased expenses associated with providing the technology and infrastructure necessary for remote and online instruction, and made significant investments in COVID-19 testing, health care, risk reduction strategies, and on-campus programs," Jarvis said "At the same time that costs are increasing, we have experienced significant reductions in tuition, housing and dining, and other auxiliary revenue due to the pandemic.”

The UO does not yet know how much of the relief funds it will receive. 

Cannon believes public higher education institutions will see budget struggles if the state funding levels stay the same. "State support will be vital for helping secure those budgets for the upcoming two years without major cuts to programs, faculty staffing, etc." he said. 

Those in the HECC are going to work with the governor's office to come up with a plan for spending Oregon's portion of the Governor's Emergency Fund, just like they did with the CARES Act last year, and if any will go to higher education. 

"That's an additional part that could help to support higher ed. It could also help to support the needs within K-12, and it will be ultimately at the discretion of the governor," Cannon said. 


-By Jordyn Brown