‘Manna With Regulations’
When the U.S. government enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in late March, Katie Shultz says that the law’s $14 billion in appropriations for higher education institutions “initially felt like manna from heaven.”
Shultz, the executive director of grants development at St. Petersburg College in Florida, and her community college peers were grateful for the CARES Act’s ability to help their institutions and students. But many staff at community colleges became overwhelmed when looking at the finer points of the funding.
“It’s so cliché to say, but these are unprecedented times and this is unprecedented funding,” Shultz says. “CARES Act funding is really not something we’ve seen before.”
Although many colleges initially thought of these dollars as emergency relief funds, grant professionals such as Shultz and Valencia College’s Lashon Henderson quickly discovered many parallels between CARES Act funding and federal grant money.
“It was manna, but manna with regulations,” says Henderson, director of grant compliance at the Orlando, Florida institution. “As I read the certification and agreement, it read like regulations. It was like, ‘Yeah, guys, this is a grant.’”
Both CASE volunteers (Shultz chaired 2019’s Conference for Community College Grant Professionals; Henderson is on the committee for the 2020 edition), these two grant experts have been working with colleagues in their state and around the country to better understand CARES Act funding, particularly the second and third phases of it, which focus on institutional expenses related to the COVID-19 response, following the student-intensive first phase.
While each are hoping for more government guidance, Shultz and Henderson have been proactive—and recently facilitated a CASE ToGather event that focused on the topic. CASE members can replay the entire conversation here.
Although there are elements that distinguish CARES Act funding from typical federal grants (it wasn’t competitive and there was no application), more similarities exist than differences, according to those with a wealth of grant experience. Because the government announced it was appointing an oversight committee and allowing for audits for the next five years, it became clear that grants professionals would play a key role in steering community colleges through the process.
“It’s about reminding college leadership that we have the training; we have the experience that can be applied here,” Shultz says. “We have to follow our established policies and procedures.”
While the amount and nature of this funding is new, Henderson and Shultz say that the procedures for how to treat CARES Act dollars are not. They advise that community colleges stick to previous methods used for implementing federal grant funding. Documentation and transparency remain important (especially considering that college staff might move on before auditors show up in a few years).
For institutions that don’t have applicable experience with this type of funding, Shultz and Henderson recommend reading the terms of the funding carefully, taking time to learn what acronyms mean by Googling them or reaching out to colleagues via the Community College Grants section of the CASE Communities.
“All grants personnel have been there, and the best people who can help them through it are other grants personnel,” Shultz says. Henderson also sees a commonality in the unique nature of this situation: “This is new and something many of us have never seen before. The one thing we’re all trying to do is understand. We need one another to better grasp what we’re taking on.”
But just because grant professionals need to be heavily involved in dealing with CARES Act funding doesn’t mean they are the only ones who should be participating. Henderson stresses the need for open communication between departments (“silos are a pitfall in this situation”) and watching out for conflicts of interest (such as making a chief financial officer the lead contact). Shultz recommends balance in any institution’s approach.
“There’s a possibility to either go so fast and almost panicky about it and spend, spend, spend to plug holes without giving much thought,” she says. “There’s the other side of giving it too much thought and forgetting the intention that this is emergency relief. The federal government wants to see this spent. It’s not to sit in a bank account somewhere.”
When advising their institutions how to properly spend these funds, Shultz and Henderson talk about feeling like a parent providing guidance and support (“or the police, monitoring the funds” Henderson says, laughing), yet both feel responsible and gratified in being able to support the students, faculty, staff, and overarching well-being of their colleges.
“This money has the potential to prevent layoffs and furloughs. This money is keeping more people employed,” Shultz says. “It is relief. It gives us the opportunity to be mission-forward and mission-focused to best serve students.”
CARES Act Resources
CASE ToGather on CARES Act Funding
Replay the entire CASE ToGather session, CARES Act Funding: It’s Still a Grant, and view the presentation’s slide deck in the Community College Grants section of the CASE Communities.
Sample Collection: CARES Act Fund Reports
The CASE Library created this sample collection to provide examples of reports, applications, and FAQ pages for institutions receiving funding through the CARES Act.
About the author(s)
Bryan Wawzenek is a content creator at CASE