PCC distributing nearly $40 Million in COVID relief grants for students in need
Photos and Story by Sarah Rose Evans
Since March 2020, Portland Community College has been awarded nearly $40 million in federal emergency relief funds to support students in need. The college has already delivered $11 million in emergency funds to students, and will be distributing nearly $29 million more during the next academic year.
Before the pandemic, statewide surveys showed that 63 percent of community college students reported some basic needs insecurity, meaning they were food and housing insecure, or even homeless. With the upheaval created by the COVID-19 pandemic, many PCC students have seen these issues exacerbated. They also faced a myriad of challenges when the college moved to remote operations, including needs related to technology and internet access in addition to housing insecurity, hunger, and/or unemployment.
To help address these issues, Congress passed three Acts appropriating funding to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), including funds to provide support for students in need. These bills were the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act, and the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act.
“These emergency funds have been a lifeline for students, considering all that they have had to navigate over the past year,” said Lauren Smith, Dean of Student Belonging & Wellbeing. “I’ve heard again and again from students that our grants have contributed to their success at PCC. Some have used funds to purchase a laptop, to get wi-fi to access remote coursework and student services, or to cover a medical bill or hospital stay due to COVID. Some have to purchase food or pay a utility bill because they’ve become unemployed after local businesses closed down.”
Students are able to use the funds for rent, food, or other emergency costs regardless of whether they have an account balance at PCC. The impact of emergency aid has been profound for students and for many, has helped to keep them enrolled and equipped with the necessary resources (i.e. technology) for success at PCC.
“The need for financial support through the pandemic, and disproportionately so among our most marginalized students, has been unprecedented,” Smith continued. “It is critical that we serve our students in this way and support their basic needs and holistic wellbeing.”
Each bill required a percentage to go to student aid. Each also defined student populations differently. Many more students are eligible for funds under the American Rescue Plan.
“This has been a continually evolving process,” said Kanna Hudson, PCC’s COVID-19 relief grants compliance manager. “The federal rules about which students and which expenses are eligible for grants have changed. The reporting requirements have also changed, so distributing this aid can be complicated and challenging to navigate.
“The team is working furiously to make sure that students have the support that they need and that the process is as straightforward as possible for students to navigate,” she said.
For students interested in receiving emergency grant funds, beginning in July 2021, students enrolled in Summer classes will receive an email asking them to provide basic information about their financial needs to determine eligibility for the grant funds. The grants will be delivered either to students’ BankMobile accounts (a type of checking account), or as paper checks. (Previously only FAFSA-eligible students could receive grants, so PCC automatically disbursed funds based on financial aid information.)
“I’m happy with the clarification of requirements, particularly the American Rescue Plan Act,” said Eric Blumenthal, vice president of finance and administration. “This has expanded the number of students who can receive funds, and we’re now able to more broadly distribute these funds to students in need, including international students, undocumented students, and DACA students. I think it is much more equitable.”
In addition to federal funding for student needs, PCC was awarded $57 million to cover institutional costs associated with COVID-19. These monies have been spent or appropriated to cover critical expenses related to the coronavirus response. Use of the institutional portion of these funds is specifically limited to defray expenses associated with coronavirus, including lost revenue, reimbursement for expenses already incurred, technology costs associated with a transition to distance education, and faculty and staff training. For PCC, institutional costs include lost revenue from its nearly 20 percent enrollment decline through the winter 2021 term; lost revenue in auxiliary services including dining and parking; personal protective equipment; bookstore shipping costs to students; and other critical expenses related to the pandemic response.