Occidental received $3.8 million in third and possibly final round of federal COVID-19 relief grant

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Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Finance, Planning & Operations Amos Himmelstein and Associate Vice President for Finance/Controller Barbara Gillett Valiente, discuss COVID-19 relief payments at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. March 24, 2022. Hudson Johnson/The Occidental.

Occidental received a third round of a federal coronavirus grant, valued at $3,757,240, from the Department of Education’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF III), according to associate vice president for finance Barbara Valiente. Amos Himmelstein, vice president and chief operating officer for finance, planning and operations said the college distributed 50 percent of the $3.8 million grant, or $1,876,620, to students and spent the other 50 percent on institutional expenses related to COVID-19 such as testing, tents and personnel. The $1.9 million for students was distributed in the Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 semesters, with $938,310 handed out each semester.

Valiente said of the 1,990 students eligible for the American Rescue Plan Act [ARPA] grant, about 200 have not responded to questions on where the grant should be transferred.

“We have to disperse [the grants], we can’t just leave it on the student account and let it cover tuition or cost,” Valiente said. “Or we have to receive a communication from the students to us, saying ‘please leave it on my student account.’ If we don’t have one of those two things, then the money cannot [be given out].”

Valiente said administrators repeatedly emailed and called students who did not claim their grant, but to no avail. Valiente said if these students don’t respond to grant-related communications by May 2022, their unclaimed grant will be returned to the federal government per ARPA guidance.

Occidental has previously received two rounds of federal coronavirus relief grants since the college decided to move to online instruction in March 2020. All three rounds of funding came as a part of larger trillion-dollar relief bills that both the Trump and Biden administration signed into law.

For example, the current $3.8 million grant from HEERF III is authorized by the ARPA, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill signed into law by President Biden in March 2021 that aimed to deliver relief to Americans and rescue the American economy, according to the White House website. According to Valiente, the first round of the grant, the HEERF I, was $1.5 million and came in May 2020; the second round of grant, the HEERF II, was $2.1 million and arrived in March 2021. According to the Department of Education, HEERF I was a part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, while HEERF II belonged to the $2.3 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act in December 2020. The initial two rounds of grants were both signed into law by President Trump.

According to the Occidental website on COVID-19 relief funds, the third round of funding differs from the first two rounds, the CARES and CRRSAA grants, in that the first two were were only available for students eligible for federal financial aid, while the latest ARPA grant is available for the entire Occidental student body, which numbers at 1,990 as of Fall 2021, regardless of financial aid status. Since the first two grants were only intended for students with financial need, only a few hundred students received them to pay for food, housing, course materials and technology. In Spring 2020, only 531 students received a grant from the CARES Act, according to an Occidental website. According to Valiente, students receiving Pell Grants are the top priority when it comes to distributing relief grants. The Pell Grant supports students who demonstrate exceptional financial need.

“Pell [Grant students were] a separate category, they received the most,” Valiente said. “After that it was based on need level from financial aid, they made the determination based on data.”

According to Sheryl Reinschmidt, director of financial aid, there are five tiers of funds that students received for the latest grant ranging from $400 to $2,300. The funds students receive was calculated based on their Occidental need-based grant status.

According to an analysis by the Association of Public & Land Grant Universities (APLU), the Department of Education looks at the number of Pell Grant recipients as well as the overall number of students at an institution to determine how much to distribute from the relief grant. Occidental received $3.8 million and Pomona College, which is similarly sized, received $3.3 million. California State University, Los Angeles, with more than 24,000 students, received $108 million from the third-round ARPA; UC San Diego received $92 million for its 40,000 students. According to Valiente, the college is not expecting a fourth round of grants.

Himmelstein said the grant can help offer some relief to students.

“[The grant] has certainly helped the instiution,” Himmelstein said. “It is not going to solve everybody’s problems, but I would hope that people used it well.”