In summary

Assuming the president approves Congress’ bipartisan relief package of $900 billion, California community colleges expect to receive $1 billion in sorely needed cash, money meant for direct student aid and to shore up colleges’ battered finances.

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California’s community colleges are expected to receive a massive infusion of federal relief money to buttress their crimped finances and send desperately needed cash directly to students after Congress this week approved a $900 billion rescue package and $1.4 trillion spending bill.

All told, analysts at the system of 116 community colleges estimate a windfall of around $1 billion, far more than the $600 million they received from the March federal relief package, known as the CARES Act.

This cash infusion includes about $23 billion for colleges, universities and their students, almost $10 billion more than the CARES Act. While the money is coming from a bigger pot to begin with, the community colleges are also getting more money because of an accounting change that more accurately captures the number of students they serve. 

And while more cash is always appreciated, higher-education advocates called for much more relief aid — $120 billion — and view this latest round of money as a down payment on what the federal government should provide. 

“While this package is a step in the right direction, additional support, including direct support to states, will lead to a more equitable economic recovery for California and the nation,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, in a statement Wednesday.  

Ted Mitchell, the head of the top association representing the nation’s colleges and universities sounded less conciliatory, calling the relief for higher education “wholly inadequate” on Monday.

The latest relief bill still requires President Trump’s signature, an uncertain outcome after he lambasted the bill yesterday. He said the portion of the relief that dedicates one-time checks of $600 for adults is insufficient and called for checks of $2,000.

The largest national pot of the relief money for higher education, about $20 billion, will go to all colleges and many of their students, though with fewer restrictions than in the March relief. The bill language says colleges will have to give direct aid to students that’s at least as much as they gave in the CARES Act. For California Community Colleges and its more than 2 million students, that meant about $300 million went directly to qualified students in the form of emergency grants.  

But because this latest relief is roughly $400 million more for community colleges than the March aid, college leaders may choose to keep money for campus spending needs. Others may instead direct a larger chunk to students, who’ve been hammered by job losses and the switch to remote learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“While this package is a step in the right direction, additional support, including direct support to states, will lead to a more equitable economic recovery for California and the nation.”

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges

Lizette Navarette, vice chancellor of college financing for the California Community Colleges, said she anticipates colleges will use more than the minimum in direct aid for students. California community colleges spend about 60% of their CARES Act aid on students, she said, more than the 50% required. The average CARES grant given to students was about $300, Navarette said. 

More than 70% of the 60,000 California college students who responded to a July survey by the California Student Aid Commission said they lost all or some of their income because of COVID-19’s financial fallout. It also found that few students actually knew about their college’s emergency grant aid and loaner laptop programs that colleges largely funded through CARES Act money. 

The damage to students’ personal finances and struggle to have adequate computers and broadband connectivity are some of the theories behind why enrollment at California community colleges plummeted in the fall

The recent relief has fewer restrictions for colleges than the CARES Act. The money can be used for lost revenue because of COVID-19, reimbursements for expenses, technology costs, training for faculty to adapt to online instruction, and direct student aid for education-related costs, including tuition, food, housing, healthcare and child support. 

The relief may also support the slow move back to in-person instruction, which will require a slew of purchases, such as more respirator masks and partitions. Colleges that managed to bring back a portion of their students for in-person learning spent tens of thousands of dollars on air filtration systems and other safety features. 

The community college system lost $350 million due to lower revenues and new expenses, according to a November legislative document.

This fresh batch of federal aid is also unlikely to get separate regulations prohibiting it being spent on undocumented students, like the CARES Act received from current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in June, unless she does so in the final weeks of her tenure.

The broader spending bill includes reforms to higher-education that advocates sought for decades, including allowing incarcerated students to access federal grant money, greater clarity on which students can receive the maximum federal aid to attend college and other tweaks that may mean more aid for the poorest students. 

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Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource...