Reimbursing students for spring dorm closures made up the largest expense category in reports showing how schools have used federal aid designated to support colleges and universities during the pandemic.
But the state’s largest universities differed widely in expenditures as outlined in reports filled out by each school, with some opting to list expenses for remote teaching or personal protective equipment, while the state’s largest university, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, still had millions unspent as of Sept. 30.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided colleges, universities and professional schools in the state with a total allocation for institutional support of up to $62.3 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Separately, the CARES Act provided schools with emergency grant aid to be disbursed to students.
Unlike with institutional aid, the student grant money has almost all been distributed by the state’s largest universities.
The four largest universities in the state by enrollment — UA-Fayetteville, Arkansas State University, the University of Central Arkansas and Arkansas Tech University — have stated that all or nearly all student grant aid has been distributed. In total, those four schools disbursed about $20.7 million to students.
Short reports on institutional expenses showed major differences in how schools have handled the CARES Act institutional funds, however.
In its report, UA-Fayetteville listed only reimbursement expenditures totaling $3,245,337, even though the university was allocated up to $7.7 million and Chancellor Joe Steinmetz in an October speech said the campus has racked up millions more in expenses because of the pandemic.
“We anticipate that there will be additional expenses incurred,” UA spokesman Mark Rushing said in an email.
The university has a “CARES committee,” Rushing said. Despite the report listing only the reimbursement as an expenditure, Rushing said the committee “has also approved more than $300,000 in additional IT related expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic — including the campus Zoom License, additional laptops for loaning to students, additional Verizon hotspots for loaning to students, and additional outdoor wifi access points to increase wifi coverage on campus.”
Rushing said the information technology expenditure, though approved, had not been spent as of Sept. 30.
In contrast to the unspent federal funds, Steinmetz on Nov. 20 told the UA board of trustees that “we estimate that we have spent or lost about $34 million in dealing with this pandemic.”
Steinmetz said “we’ve also got our fingers crossed” that there will be another federal allocation to colleges and universities.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Nov. 20 commented about CARES Act funding, saying higher education schools had done a better job of spending the funds than kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools had,” referring to some states not reopening schools this fall for in-person instruction.
She said she especially appreciated higher-education institutions”https://www.arkansasonline.com/”clear efforts to make sure their students received the resources meant for them.”
DeVos’ remarks came with an Education Department’s announcement of a new database showing how CARES Act funds have been spent. The department announced that 64% of the approximately $14 billion awarded to higher-education institutions had been spent, a total that includes student grant aid and allocations to institutions.
But it’s been a lack of clarity from the federal Department of Education that’s affected how colleges spend their institutional allocations, said Douglas Webber, an associate professor in Temple University’s Department of Economics.
“There’s definitely been some ambiguity as to what is going to be counted as an acceptable way to spend your money, and that has kept schools from allocating all of their money,” Webber said.
By having schools report their spending, federal government officials “want to make sure institutions are not spending it on something that’s not related to covid,” he said.
Webber said colleges and universities may be more at ease with a new president, referring to President-elect Joe Biden.
“Once the transition has been made to a Biden administration, I do think that schools are generally going to have a greater amount of faith that they’re not going to be penalized” if their spending it not related to covid-19, Webber said.
But not all universities in the state delayed their use of federal CARES Act funding.
ASU listed having spent all of its CARES Act funding by Sept. 30, including $2,809,676 in reimbursements and $1,819,403 for “subsidizing the costs of high-speed internet to students or faculty to transition to an online environment.”
ASU also received a CARES Act allocation from the U.S. Department of Education’s Strengthening Institutions Program. It used $453,162 in those funds for “replacing lost revenue from non-tuition sources.”
UCA spent most, but not all of its CARES Act institutional support funding by Sept. 30, according to its report.
The Conway campus’s report lists a total of $4,217,204 in expenses through Sept. 30 and an allocation of $4,802,462 in CARES Act institutional support funding, plus an additional $475,012 in Strengthening Institutions Program funding, which is also authorized under the CARES Act.
In general, UCA’s report does not reflect the full coronavirus expenses incurred through September, university spokeswoman Amanda Hoelzeman said.
“We fully expect to use the full institutional allocation,” she said in an email.
Among expenditures already made, UCA listed spending $2,740,932 on reimbursements. It’s next-greatest expense listed in the report was $510,436 for subsidizing food service. UCA commented in the report that expense was for costs “related to continuing to provide on-campus dining in May, June & July.”
Hoelzeman said the university has a contract with Aramark Education Services to manage food service and provide meals.
“The additional expenses are due to the increased costs of operating the program and providing additional services that are needed due to COVID-19,” Hoelzeman said. The university, as did others, said early on in the pandemic that its dining service had been modified to package meals in to-go boxes and that tables had been removed to help ensure social distancing.
Arkansas Tech listed an expense of $1,588,596 in reimbursements. It’s next-largest category of expense was for “purchasing, leasing, or renting additional equipment or software to enable distance learning,” which it listed as $1,069,675 through Sept. 30.
The report states that laptops for faculty and staff members were purchased, as was software and cameras.
Arkansas Tech spokesman Sam Strasner said technology purchases were made to better equip classrooms for recording lectures.
“Sixty new laptops, 150 webcams, 60 cellular hot spots and audio headsets were also purchased to support students pivoting online or in quarantine,” Strasner said.
Arkansas Tech listed $122,614 in expenses in the “campus safety and operations” category, adding a comment that the CARES Act-funded safety expenditures were for personal protective equipment and facility modification.”
“Cleaning supplies, social distancing signage, masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, plexiglass shields, face shields, isolation gowns, thermometers and batteries are among the special and heightened personal protective equipment needs created by the pandemic,” Strasner said, adding that facility expenses included trailer rental storage and moving services for furniture “to create appropriate social distancing in classrooms and common areas.”
Those expenditures are specific to the pandemic are not anticipated to be a continuing expense for the university in a post-pandemic environment,” Strasner said.
The university in Russellville in its report listed expenses of $2,780,995 covered by CARES Act institutional support funding, which amounts to more than 70% of its allocation. Arkansas Tech reported receiving an allocation of $3,549,493 in CARES Act institutional support, not including $346,577 from the U.S. Department of Education’s Strengthening Institutions Program.
Some of that money is being reserved for students, Strasner said.
“Arkansas Tech is holding a portion of its CARES Act institutional allocation award in reserve for any students who are eligible for housing and/or meal plan credits as a result of their spring 2020 enrollment at the institution, did not attend during fall 2020 but may return during spring 2021,” Strasner said in an email.
Strasner said this aligns with policy set by the university’s board of trustees on refunds and credits from the spring closures related to the pandemic.