This month, college students across the country will begin a new semester in the middle of a pandemic. Some will do so through online learning and others will go to campus, using social distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE). For colleges, that means they are going to need more resources to provide a quality education and keep students safe, especially community colleges.
Congress is currently negotiating the next coronavirus relief and stimulus package and money for higher education will likely be included. Senate Democrats have proposed more than $130 billion for colleges, universities, and students, while Senate Republicans called for $30 billion. House Democrats passed a bill in May that would have given them nearly $40 billion.
While there isn’t agreement on the amount Congress will appropriate just yet, the way lawmakers decide to allocate the money is also an important consideration. In the last stimulus bill, community colleges received just 27% of the funds even though they enroll 39% of students because the formula used to allocate the money disadvantaged community colleges.
The CARES Act appropriated $14 billion for higher education as campuses closed and instruction moved online. Most of that money (95%) was allocated to institutions based on a formula prescribed by Congress. Three-quarters of the money was based on the enrollment of Pell Grant receiving students and the other quarter on non-Pell students, excluding those who were exclusively online before the pandemic.
But the formula weighted enrollment on what is known as full-time equivalent (FTE), not headcount enrollment. So instead of counting each part-time student as one student, they were counted as less than one to determine how much schools received. That instantly deprived community colleges of needed resources because community college students are more likely to be part-time.
And even though the formula prioritized Pell students, it discounted many them because they are more likely to go part-time. Pell students were also neglected by the formula because they are more likely to attend community colleges, so the schools they attended received less money to help them.
That led a group of higher education advocates to publish a letter this week calling on Congress to adopt a headcount formula, rather than one that uses FTE. The advocates explained how an FTE approach harms community colleges, as well as students themselves.
The letter said, “The allocation formula must focus on educational equity by ensuring this aid is allocated in such a way as to provide sufficient resources to two-year public colleges, which are a crucial, affordable on-ramp to higher education for millions of students, particularly low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college students.”
There are some who argue that there are reasons the formula should have prioritized full-time students in the spring. For example, many full-time residential students had to leave residential halls, forcing colleges to issue refunds and miss out on important revenue. That is true—and fair—but not all full-time students are residential students. And overall, the need for additional resources from institutions this fall isn’t very connected to the number of classes students take.
Community colleges will still have many expenses due to the coronavirus, even though they have more part-time students. Schools purchasing plexiglass or other PPE won’t see much of a difference because some students take fewer classes. If the college provides masks for students, the price they pay or the number they buy won’t be dependent on students’ enrollment status.
Inequitable relief funding will just add to existing funding disparities. Community colleges are historically underfunded by state governments, which will only get worse as the pandemic drains state budgets. And while they keep tuition low to help students, that means they have fewer resources even when there isn’t a public health crisis.
Students’ needs are also not dependent on their courseload. A student who needs to buy a laptop can’t get a cheaper one because they have fewer courses. If a student gets sick, their health care bill doesn’t consider whether they take a few classes or five. A part-time student is also more likely to work during school, but they might have lost that employment due to the pandemic.
It’s clear colleges and students will need more resources this fall in order to ensure a quality—and safe—education. Instead of a formula using FTE to determine how much money colleges should receive, Congress should use a headcount approach as advocates have requested.
Colleges need help based on the number of students they serve, rather than the enrollment intensity of their students. And students, particularly low-income students, should be treated equally regardless of how many courses they take.