By Julian Mendoza, Stephanie Zappelli & Sindhu Ananthavel, CalMatters
California’s four state universities could get $ 47 million more in coronavirus aid if they requested funds from another federal agency, a recent government audit showed. As a result, some students may have been missing out on support services and equipment during an unprecedented disruption to schooling around the world.
California colleges can apply for two cash pots, one from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the other from the US Department of Education, called the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). Of the six UCLA and UCS campuses audited, four used Department of Education funding to cover costs for which they had to apply to FEMA for reimbursement, according to an audit.
The audit recommended that Chico State, Cal State Long Beach, UC Merced and UC San Diego apply to FEMA for reimbursement of approximately $ 7.5 million in past expenses and $ 39.7 million in planned expenses so that they can use these money to support students.
According to the results of the audit, two other universities participating in the audit – Sonoma State and UC Riverside – used and requested reimbursement appropriately. A total of six universities received $ 822 million in HEERF funding.
FEMA could potentially reimburse campuses for costs including coronavirus testing, vaccines, and temporary medical tents. The U.S. Department of Education also provided emergency funding to pay for these costs, but that money could also be used for other pandemic-related costs such as technology services.
While campus officials said reimbursing FEMA’s costs is more difficult, education advocates said it wasn’t a compelling reason to give up millions.
“The students had problems meeting their basic needs,” said Yvonne Muñoz, a higher education policy analyst at the Education Trust West, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Emergency funding really should have been allocated urgently given that.”
The potential $ 47 million could be used to directly support students, Muñoz said. The Education Trust and Global Strategy Group surveyed 1,010 students about their experiences during the pandemic and found that more students found it difficult to pay for basic necessities, including rent, meals and tuition during the pandemic, and a third of respondents skipped meals frequently because that she could not. afford them, the survey showed.
Getting money back
Chico state officials said it was not easy to get reimbursements from FEMA. About three years ago, they applied to FEMA for reimbursements for the deadly and devastating 2018 camp fire, and their claims were only recently fully settled, ” said Stacy Corona, deputy vice president of financial services for Chico State. Corona said it took nearly three years to close FEMA’s bid for the camp fire.
“It’s a rather complicated process, it’s a lot of back and forth movements,” said Corona.
However, they have asked FEMA to reimburse $ 367,409 in costs related to the pandemic and the campus has not yet been paid, she said. The costs covered by the claims include PPE, detergents and sanitation stations, Corona said. The university has also filed a lawsuit with FEMA for an additional $ 164.00, which the auditor believes it should reallocate from its expenses to HEERF, she said.
The UC San Diego official who lost the most, $ 4.3 million in spent dollars and $ 36.3 million in planned spending that FEMA could reimburse, also “indicated that the FEMA claims process is placing a huge administrative burden on campuses. to collect all the necessary documents such as invoices and receipts associated with each expense, ”according to the audit.
“We agree with the recommendations made during the audit and are working on recommended improvements to enhance the use of federal aid funds, maximize the benefits of these funds for the university community, and ensure compliance with the changing landscape of federal rules and requirements governing the allocation of this aid.” said in a statement from a spokesman for the University of California, San Diego.
During a typical year, FEMA typically took three to six months to process and approve applications for funds. However, according to the results of the audit, during a pandemic, it can take six to 12 months. While campuses will have to wait for money, the audit has convinced officials to apply.
“Regardless of the amount of time it will take FEMA to process these claims, the millions of dollars that campuses can receive should outweigh their reluctance to participate in the process,” the audit said.
The audit explained where four schools fell short of their federal aid and where two schools — Sonoma State and UC Riverside — made better decisions.
The California Department of Education in Long Beach spent $ 2.836 million on expenses, including a temporary medical tent, coronavirus testing and vaccines, when it could have asked FEMA to reimburse those costs, the audit said. UC Merced also spent $ 113,000 on FEMA returnable items.
In comparison, the audit noted that Sonoma State and the University of California-Riverside have tried to use DOE funding for subjects that cannot be reimbursed by FEMA, such as technology acquisition for students.
The audit found that the office of the President of the University of California and the Chancellor of California should have given schools more guidance on how to allocate federal funding to avoid any mistakes.
Universities distributed grants to students in different ways. Thus, students in some colleges received grants, while students in others did not, even if they were in a similar financial situation.
For example, the University of California, San Diego, issued the same number of automatic grants to almost all students, while the University of California, Riverside, distributed grants based on the expected contribution of the student family on their financial aid documents.
These scholarships also varied from school to school. For example: A student whose expected family contribution is between $ 1 and $ 2,000 will receive a grant of $ 900 in Chico, $ 1,300 in Sonoma State, and $ 500 at CSU Long Beach.
Students in California, Long Beach, Chico and Sonoma states can also apply for additional grants if they feel their college is underestimating its costs of the pandemic. However, the state of California in Long Beach gave additional grants to students only if they applied for money due to the transition to virtual education.
Naten Ortiz, an intern student at Let’s Go To College CA and a senior at UC Fullerton, said he received a grant from his university, which was transferred to his bank account. He said he would like to see more interaction with students in order to provide students with more information about grants, including where the funding came from and how students can apply for additional assistance.
“Each university should include a lot more students in terms of budget and how certain money should be distributed among the different departments on campus,” Ortiz said.
The fact that grants were distributed differently across universities shows how “higher education is very unfair,” he added.
Differences in grant funding have caused confusion among students. According to Marcos Montes, program manager for Let’s Go to College CA, when students compared the amount of federal aid they received with friends at their own university and other universities, they didn’t know why other people were eligible for more funding and others for less. , a program created to support students during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is important for campuses to find a balance between meeting the needs of specific groups of students and uniformity in how they spend and use those dollars,” Montes said.
According to the audit recommendations, UCOP will require each campus to report its pandemic-related spending from January 2020 to December 31, 2021 to ensure that all eligible articles are submitted to FEMA for reimbursement, according to University spokesman Joanna McWilliams. The university has yet to set a deadline for reports, she said.
The California Chancellor’s Office, however, will not require campuses to submit a report, but will provide assistance to campuses that wish to apply to FEMA for reimbursement, said spokesman Mike Ulenkamp.
“Apart from adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to the process, there is also no guarantee that FEMA will approve these claims, much less in a timely manner,” Ulenkamp said via email. He added that the average waiting time for claims for reimbursement from FEMA to campuses is 279 days.
Mendoza, Zappelli and Ananthavel – associates CalMatters College Journalists Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists across California. This story and other materials about higher education are supported by the Future College Foundation.