Capital Region colleges and universities are slated to receive millions in new federal stimulus aid passed this month, directly supporting students, bolstering struggling budgets and enabling a continued response to the pandemic.
SUNY Schenectady is set to receive around $9.1 million in new federal aid, the University of Albany would see over $40 million and Union College and Skidmore College would get around $3 million and $4 million, respectively, according to estimates Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office released last week.
The money, half of which must be used for direct grants to students, marks the third federal bill in the last year to provide college and universities extra support during the pandemic, but this month’s aid package represents the largest yet for higher education.
While colleges are still waiting on their final aid numbers and specific guidance for how the money can be spent, at least half of each school’s allotment must be funneled directly into grants to students on financial aid. The grants can be used to support tuition and other academic costs but also to help students cover other life expenses like housing and food support.
Colleges will have more leeway in spending the second half of their money, using the aid to bolster struggling budgets, expand technology used in virtual classes, and prepare facilities for in-person instruction under health precautions. For many colleges, the federal aid could be a critical lifeline to manage a tenuous transition out of the pandemic over the next couple of years.
SUNY Schenectady President Steady Moono on Monday lauded the new aid – saying he was “indebted” to federal lawmakers – and said it will help the college maintain its core academic and community mission in the coming years.
“It preserves the dreams of our students,” Moono said in an interview Monday.
Moono, noting that college officials were still waiting federal guidance, said Schenectady’s community college planned to use the aid to improve its remote education program while also making health and safety improvements on campus in expectation of a fall semester with still mixed learning models. Moono said the college is planning to host more in-person classes in the fall but that some courses and parts of classes would remain virtual.
He said the aid could be used to outfit culinary labs with cameras and other technology to improve virtual instruction in those types of spaces, for example; the college will also use the aid to outfit classrooms with physical barriers and other safety measures as they hope to welcome more students to campus in the fall. He said on-campus testing also have to continue.
“We are hoping that there will more face-to-face classes (in the fall),” Moono said. “We have a schedule that assumes more face-to-face classes than we provided this year.”
SUNY Schenectady and other community colleges faced a massive enrollment hit this year, which followed on the heels of a decade of sliding enrollments, and are now staring down the resulting drop in revenue that comes with fewer students. The federal aid, which will likely be spent over multiple years, will provide colleges some breathing room to preserve position in hopes that enrollment rebounds.
Fulton-Montgomery County College acting President Greg Truckenmiller in recent weeks said the college could have been in need of a state takeover of some sort without federal and state financial support. The budget news has turned somewhat rosier since those comments, but Truckenmiller also highlighted the need to plow the money back into the COVID-related expenses colleges have had to take on. He also pointed out that more than half of the college’s estimated $5.3 million in aid is “designated for student emergency grants” and will go directly to them.
“We welcome the additional aid at a time when our revenues from other sources is diminished,” Truckenmiller said in a statement Friday. “It is likely however that this aid will be directed toward requirements related to COVID safety measures, such as testing, PPE and other environmental interventions.” He said they may also be able to invest in new classroom technology.
Most local colleges in response to questions about how the money would be used said they were still waiting more specific guidance and noted the direct funding to students. Officials did acknowledge the aid eases some budgetary stress – even as state aid and other unknown factors weigh heavily.
“The latest round of stimulus money will be a great help in offsetting some of the added costs and lost revenues that UAlbany has suffered as a result of the pandemic,” UAlbany spokesperson Jordan Carleo-Evangelist said in a statement Friday. “We also hope to use some of the campus’ roughly $22 million share to invest in new academic and research initiatives to support the financial stability of the university.
He said college officials were still closely watching state budget negotiations in Albany and that while the federal aid will not solve all of the college’s budget challenges, it will help spread potential reductions over a longer period of time.
Skidmore College spokesperson Diane O’Connor in a statement Friday offered few details about how the college would spend its estimated $4.1 million in new federal aid other than directing aid to students and addressing the far-reaching impacts of COVID-19.
“Skidmore College has used and will continue to use any allocated federal stimulus funds to financially assist our students, as well as address any financial and operational impact due to COVID-19,” O’Connor said.