In December 2020 and March 2021, Congress passed two additional major COVID-19 relief bills, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) and the American Rescue Plan (ARP). Included in both bills is significant funding (approximately $62B) earmarked for higher ed institutions through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF).
Similar to the CARES Act passed in the spring of 2020, most of the recent higher ed COVID-19 relief funds will go to public and nonprofit institutions using a set apportionment formula. However, the CRRSAA and ARP provide more flexibility than the CARES Act around how colleges and universities choose to spend their funds.
How can institutions spend their CRRSAA and ARP funds?
According to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, parameters for the use of funds include:
- Defraying expenses associated with coronavirus (including lost revenue, reimbursement for expenses already incurred, technology costs associated with a transition to distance education, faculty and staff trainings, and payroll)
- Carrying out student support activities authorized by the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA), that address needs related to coronavirus
- Making additional financial aid grants to students
An opportunity to invest in digital transformation
In short, these latest rounds of higher ed COVID-19 relief funding provides more resources to colleges and universities, enabling them to go beyond simply replacing lost revenue and instead focus on strengthening themselves for long-term sustainability.
According to a recent research report, the average institution’s mix of face-to-face and online delivery models used during the pandemic likely created an opportunity for a more permanent shift to a hybrid university. This isn’t surprising considering almost every other consumer-facing industry operates in a hybrid capacity, offering the consumer the choice of how, when and where they interact.
Although many colleges and universities were previously able to delay digital transformation, COVID-19 changed everything – accelerating institutions’ need for adopting new technology solutions and shifting students’ requirements and expectations for learning. Because of this, now is the time for higher ed to set themselves up for the future. Why not use your institution’s CRRSAA and ARP funds to start evolving and transforming the way it conducts operations and serves students through new investments in digital technology? After all, the digitally savvy consumer has suddenly come to the forefront of higher education – and your institution must understand and deliver on their evolving expectations to survive.
Where schools should start spending COVID-19 relief funds
Your institution’s first priority should be to provide any immediate financial support needed to your students. But after that, where should you spend the rest of your COVID-19 relief funds? A good place to start could be identifying and prioritizing technologies and activities that directly affect the student experience and ensure a more effective remote learning experience.
For example, many students whose classes transitioned to online during the pandemic are feeling unhappy and shortchanged by their online learning experience, citing lack of engagement, isolation, IT issues and less time in class. In a December 2020 poll, over half of college students agreed with the statement that “higher education is not good quality now that it has moved partially or entirely online.” Notably, though, the majority of these same students indicate that they’d prefer to see their classes remain either online or in a hybrid setting for the 2021-22 academic year. This supports our belief at Collegis Education that the modality isn’t the problem for students – the problem is the implementation, execution, and support.
Investing in the hybrid learning classroom experience
To keep students enrolled and deliver on their value, your institution may first consider applying CRRSAA and ARP funds to areas that directly improve the hybrid learning classroom. Some of these areas where we are currently helping other institutions include:
- High-quality audiovisual (A/V) equipment and its associated IT labor: First and foremost, students need to be able to clearly see, hear and participate in class – no matter how classes are held. They can’t do that if the cameras, microphones, speakers and computers that are supposed to be connecting them are outdated or nonexistent.
- Synchronous web conferencing system: To further enhance the classroom experience, students should be able to use video streaming and live chat to remotely attend class and interact in real-time.
- Video platform service: Some students will prefer to participate asynchronously all the time. They must be able to easily search, access and watch recorded content.
- Online course platform: A learning management system (LMS) with all course content and materials should be in place for both online and on-ground programs to access.
- Electronic proctoring technology: Your school must have a secure way to administer assessments and ensure their academic integrity.
- Remote connectivity: To ensure students can always access the digital classroom, your institution must consider increasing its internet bandwidth, providing redundant internet connections and offering loaner laptops to students when needed.
- 24/7, on-demand tech support: If an online or hybrid learner has a technical issue, your school must have the capacity to quickly help them resolve it – anytime, anywhere and through any modality.
- Faculty training and support: Your faculty must feel comfortable and supported using all of this technology to create engaging learning experiences in different modalities. Without faculty support, the student experience will suffer.
Investing in IT infrastructure
Once your institution has addressed the areas that directly affect students’ learning experiences, you can consider applying CRRSAA and ARP funds to IT infrastructure investments that create more efficient experiences for your students and staff. These include:
- Outdoor wireless connectivity: Due to social distancing from COVID-19, a well-established wireless outdoor network can help students participate in class from areas like the campus quad.
- Electronic document management solutions: Higher ed faculty and staff still spend too much time uploading files, searching for documents and running processes by hand. To free staff up for more important tasks, your school should have a platform that allows it to scan, store and index all documents electronically.
- Self-service capabilities: Most of today’s students expect to manage all their needs online. Your institution should offer students more online self-service capabilities, so they don’t have to wait for staff to manually process a request.
- Cloud migration: By migrating your institution’s core applications and systems to the cloud, learning can continue even if the physical campus is closed for some reason.
Improve the student experience through investments in digital technology
Your institution’s first priority for new COVID-19 relief funds is surely to provide the immediate support that your students, faculty and staff need to keep operations and learning running smoothly. But with the additional flexibility the CRRSAA and ARP offer, there’s a great opportunity to build upon the digital transformation that has occurred over the last year to offer more student-centric learning experiences that can enable long-term sustainability.
Collegis Education has worked for many years with a wide variety of institutions on the deployment of online and hybrid programs, as well as the management of their technology ecosystems. If your college or university lacks the IT resources, governance or expertise necessary to support any or all of these investment areas, we can help.