Higher Education officials ask for funding and legislative fixes to battle COVID-19

RALEIGH — The bipartisan Education Working Group for the House Select Committee on COVID-19 met recently with higher education officials to ascertain their current and future needs.

The committee heard from Dr. Bill Roper, interim president of the University of North Carolina System; Dr. Peter Hans, president of the N.C. Community College System; and Dr. Hope Williams, president of N.C. Independent Colleges and Universities.

Money, online learning and cutting through red-tape were consistent themes. There was a consensus by those who spoke that the economy and business will be in serious trouble if higher education institutions aren’t unable to train and educate students for the workforce.

UNC’s Roper said the impact of this virus on campus life will be “long-lasting.”

The transition to online learning has put a strain on higher education systems both in terms of infrastructure and finances. Reimbursements of room, board and tuition for students and enrollment growth are two critical areas of concern.

Another pressing issue is student unemployment. Dr. Williams said that many students who have jobs on-campus work year-round and sometimes through the summer are now out of work. She also said they are concerned students who may have already accepted may be rethinking or were already planning to rescind attendance.

Dr. Roper also mentioned student employees, noting that the loss of receipt supported activities like conferences and the closure of campuses has removed “a significant portion, if not their entire revenue stream.”

In its presentation, N.C. Independent Colleges and Universities (NCICU) requests a one-time support based on a formula similar to the federal response of around $36 million in nonrecurring funds. NCICU also asked for $10 million in non-recurring fund assistance for students whose families have been affected by COVID-19.

In addition, Williams asked the committee to consider restoration of $20 million in state financial aid to return North Carolina Need Based Scholarship (NCNBS) to the prerecession level of $108 million. The committee was also asked to consider restoring the eligibility of independent college and university students for state lottery scholarship aid. Her presentation noted that this would be approximately $5 million.

Beyond financial help, NCICU seeks multiple waivers from lawmakers, including entry, internship, testing and GPA requirements. Specifically mentioned was a waiver for the Praxis Core test for Educator Preparation Program (EPP) admission for the upcoming 2020-21 school year.

The N.C. Community College System (NCCCS) financial request is for a one-time payment of $25 million. Hans said the community college system has transitioned to online only for most courses and that these funds will help tackle any gaps in tuition collection that might arise from the cancelation of in-person only classes.

NCCCS is also asking for $41.5 million for the fiscal year 2020-21 to cover enrollment growth for instruction. Funds for transitioning to online courses is definitely going to be an additional financial ask, but Hans said the amount is yet underdetermined.

UNC System’s Bill Roper requested the release of just over $29 million ($29,075,005) for education already delivered over the course of 2019.

“H. 966 would have appropriated $75,000,000 into a reserve for enrollment growth for the education sector. We seek this funding now to assist in stabilizing our universities,” Roper’s presentation reads.

Roper’s presentation suggested that the state should “hold students harmless” for withdrawing during the COVID-19 outbreak by waiving any repayment of state financial aid and through waivers for interest on student balances.

During a special March 30 meeting of the UNC Board of Governors, Roper announced that the UNC System was committed to offering pro-rated reimbursements for tuition, room, board and meal plans. During his presentation to lawmakers, Roper said grants are needed to help cover those reimbursements.

Another regulatory fix sought by UNC is a waiver for the state retirement 6-month break in service requirement for health care and education workers to reenter the workforce. This break will help with nurse and teacher shortfalls and speed up reemployment recent retirees.

All three of the higher education officials mentioned the federal CARES Act and the uncertainty about the permitted uses of funding earmarked for education purposes, and specifically the use of those funds for instructional costs.

The CARES Act includes $13 Billion for public and private Institutions of Higher Education. More detailed guidance on these funds will follow in the coming weeks, but restrictions on using CARES ACT monies for reimbursements is expected.

About A.P. Dillon 975 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_