5 Interesting Ways Governors Are Spending CARES Act GEER Funds on Higher Education

A college student in Medford, Massachusetts, walks past a campus testing center with his luggage on August 27, 2020.

Tucked into March’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was $3 billion for governors to spend on educational institutions hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as Congress remains mired in debates over whether to award additional stimulus, recently released reports paint a clearer picture of what states are doing with their shares of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund. While most of this aid is going to K-12 school districts, some states have put forth equity- and sustainability-focused higher education spending priorities. For example, Michigan created a free community college program for essential workers, and South Carolina dedicated its entire higher education allocation to its eight historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Should Congress grant more relief aid, states should use some of these strategies as models for helping the most vulnerable students and institutions.

GEER Fund initial report findings

This column examines the short reports submitted by states this summer to the U.S. Department of Education. These initial, 45-day reports, posted publicly in September, describe at a high level each state’s plans for using their GEER funding.

Notably, 17 states and Washington, D.C., spent little to no money on higher education, opting instead to spend all of it on school districts and services for K-12 students. Among the remaining 33 states, GEER funding dedicated to higher education was most commonly distributed to institutions, either through a direct allocation or through competitive grants. Institutions might spend that money on emergency aid to students, covering safe reopening costs as well as lost revenue, technology, and professional development for faculty and staff. In some states, funds went to university systems or state agencies to fund centralized programs, such as financial aid programs.

Because governors were given flexibility on how to spend their GEER funding, several proposals stand out for being unique or innovative. Some exemplify an equity-minded strategy by focusing on the historically undersupported students and institutions that need the most help now, including Black students, adult students, HBCUs, and community colleges. Others are using the funds to ensure sustainability of institutions and student success beyond the immediate crisis.

Michigan creates its Futures for Frontliners program

In September, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) launched the Futures for Frontliners program, funded by the state’s entire $24 million higher education portion of GEER funding. As the first of its kind in the country, this short-term scholarship program is for people who do not already have a degree and who worked as essential workers between April and June 2020. Eligible students will receive tuition-free in-district community college courses toward any certificate or degree program. In its first two weeks, a remarkable 60,000 students applied for the program—a strong indication that adult workers in Michigan may be out of the jobs they held earlier in the year and in need of new career training.

South Carolina backs its HBCUs

South Carolina is the only state to dedicate the full $2.4 million in GEER funding it set aside for higher education to its HBCUs. As Black college students and HBCUs face some of the worst effects of the pandemic, this investment shows a commitment to racial equity in higher education. The aid was slated to be awarded across the state’s eight public and private HBCUs—until the effort was upended in late July by a lawsuit.

Gov. Henry McMaster (R) used the rest of the $32 million in GEER funding to create a controversial K-12 school choice program, giving money directly to parents to send low-income students to private schools. This use of public funds for private educational institutions was immediately challenged as a violation of the state’s constitution, and the South Carolina Supreme Court agreed. Though the HBCU funding was not initially implicated in the lawsuit, the governor still suspended its allocation while the case was under review. Now, the ruling may entirely upset the governor’s spending plans on higher education, because six of the state’s HBCUs are private institutions.

Massachusetts protects vulnerable colleges

Massachusetts may be the only state to use some of its GEER funding to help struggling public and private colleges on the brink of closure. The initial report indicates grants will be given to colleges at risk of insolvency or closure following an “independent assessment of the institution’s finances.” According to an official in the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education whom CAP reached for comment, $1 million will be reserved to pay for financial assessments of institutions, and about $5 million will be reserved for future emergency spending, including grants to vulnerable colleges.

This strategy illustrates the tough choices states have to make with their limited relief aid. Across the country, at least nine small private colleges have decided to close since the pandemic began, and more closures are expected, including in New England. Another three colleges have announced mergers with other institutions, including Massachusetts’ Pine Manor College and Boston College. Grants from the GEER Fund could keep some Massachusetts colleges afloat through the worst effects of the pandemic.

Texas plans to invest in student success

In both its application for funding and initial report, Texas provided unusual detail on its plans to spend $307 million on schools and colleges. Much of the $175 million for higher education went to students through existing state financial aid programs, emergency student aid, and aid for “upskilling and reskilling displaced workers.” Most interesting is Texas’ $15 million investment in technology designed to improve student success rates. This type of technology uses a student’s academic data to give real-time feedback to the student and their academic advisers about the student’s progress to graduation. In addition, Texas plans to spend some of this money on new training resources for career advisers and other technologies. The investment in these enhancements could yield benefits to all students now and well beyond the pandemic.

Kansas, New Jersey, and Washington state go all in on higher education

Finally, three states stand out for awarding their entire GEER Fund allocations to higher education institutions. Each used slightly different strategies. New Jersey awarded its more than $68 million directly to its public universities and community colleges through a formula. Washington state prioritized community colleges with its $54 million in GEER funding. The state’s 34 community and technical colleges received $44 million in aid, leaving $10 million for the six public universities. The exact funds each community college received were based on factors that included accounting for enrollment declines and preserving support for students of color. This approach recognizes the outsize role that historically undersupported community colleges will play in educating students during the pandemic.

Kansas, on the other hand, took the opposite approach. The entire $26 million fund was awarded to the Kansas Board of Regents—the state’s governing body overseeing its state universities and institutions—which disbursed the money among the state’s six public universities, including separate allocations going to its medical center and veterinary medical center. Curiously, the 19 community colleges and six technical colleges, also coordinated by the Board of Regents, received no emergency relief funds, which is a missed opportunity to support two-year colleges.

Looking ahead

The GEER Fund was the last pot of money from the CARES Act that will help to carry college students and institutions through the fall semester. However, states need more federal relief aid for higher education now and beyond—as much as $120 billion, according to one estimate. Without it, one can expect consequences with long-lasting effects, including declines in enrollment, especially among students of color and low-income students; faculty and staff layoffs; reduced student services; and even college closures.

Not only is more aid needed, but the investments must be targeted at the most vulnerable students and institutions, thereby preventing unjustifiable allocations to wealthy universities and for-profit colleges. As Congress debates subsequent relief packages, the initiatives highlighted in this column may be models for other states seeking to use short-term emergency funding to improve equity outcomes or sustain institutions and student success through the pandemic.

Bradley D. Custer is a senior policy analyst for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.