WCU provides financial relief to students

COVID-19 hit college students considerably but not just with the disruption of classes and online school. The financial hardship impacted many students to drop or reconsider schools.

During the spring semester, we wanted to see what kind of assistance students had through the university. Many students were surprised on both ends of the spectrum regarding the amount of funding they received through the Student Emergency Fund. Some were approved and others declined with similar reasoning for need. Read more about that story here.

We also wanted to see how the university used its appropriated government funds to assist students.

The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) has been a saving grace for many students. It is a federal grant program that is a part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which allocated $14 billion to provide economic relief to college students impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020.

WCU received three tranches of HEERF in a total of $12,668,408. The first HEERF was distributed at the end of the 2020 spring semester. According to the data from the university, the allotted $4,446,704 was distributed to 4,354 students. The majority of this funding went to undergraduates coming to a total of 3,989 students, followed by 259 graduate students and 106 doctoral students.

The amount of funding based on various demographics can be found below.

Out of these 4,354 students, 444 were out-of-state, and 3,910 were in-state. Of those recipients, 43% were male, and 57% were female.

As part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, WCU students enrolled for the spring 2021 semester received access to financial assistance through HEERF II. The number of funds available matches the amount for spring 2020.

Students who had access to HEERF II funding met the following criteria.

Eligible students:

  • Undergraduate degree-seeking students
  • Graduate degree-seeking students
  • Residential and distance students
  • U.S. citizens

Ineligible students (subject to further clarification or change):

  • Non-Degree
  • Certificate
  • International
  • Undocumented

HEERF II funds were used for emergency costs such as childcare, food, housing, medical/health, technology and travel/transportation.

Unlike HEERF I, many students automatically received a $500 HEERF Block Grant without completing an application. Students who received the HEERF Block Grant were eligible to apply to request additional funds. This resulted in much confusion among the student body.

“So, my roommate, who applied for HEERF last go around, just received HEERF II grant, yet it hasn’t been open for application unless I missed something,” said student Patrick Burke. “Because I’ve been trying to figure out how to apply for it and have seen nothing all semester.”

Since no explanation was given to students as to why this was happening, students started speculating themselves.

“I think it only applies to those who applied last year when they first offered it,” said student Tyshanna Hulvey. “Because I never reapplied, but I received the grant a second time too.”

These decisions were later found out to be determined by each student’s financial aid package.

“HEERF Block Grants were awarded consistent with the guidance from the U.S. Department of Education and direction by the WCU Chancellor’s Executive Council,” said associate vice chancellor of student affairs and dean of students BaShaun Smith in an email. “Priority consideration for the block grants was given to students who demonstrate exceptional financial need as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA).  WCU initiated emergency grant awards to students in order to continue assisting students with emergency costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The committee reviewing these applications consisted of Smith, Director of University Scholarships Brenda Holcombe and Director of Financial Aid Trina Orr. HEERF II awards were based on student eligibility defined by federal guidelines, student application provided documentation and funding availability, according to Smith.

The amount of HEERF dollars WCU received in 2021 was $4,446,704. Ninety-six percent of this allotment was distributed to 2,478 students, with $198,697 remaining. The majority of this funding went to undergraduates coming to a total of 2,309 students, followed by 205 graduate students and 90 doctoral students.

The amount of funding based on various demographics can be found below.

In total, 2,478 students received funding, with 317 being out-of-state and 2,287 being in-state. Of those recipients, 43% were male and 57% were female.

Between both HEERF I and HEERF II, 192 students were deemed ineligible for funding.

On June 14, WCU announced they would award $3,775,000 this summer as part of HEERF III. These funds will be utilized toward student success initiatives, including tuition waivers for eligible undergraduate students enrolled in any summer session term. The waivers do not include fees.

Also included in the allocation is nearly $407,000 to support the summer 2021 Academic Success Program and Catamount Gap programs. Program costs that are covered include tuition, fees, housing and meal plan costs.

“With these funding opportunities, we’re able to continue our commitment to this region while providing accessible and affordable higher education to all students,” said Kelli R. Brown, WCU chancellor, in a statement. “We understand the many challenges our students experience to obtain an education, even more so during a global pandemic, and we strive to eliminate the financial barriers so that our students are able to achieve their academic and professional goals.”

Eligible students who have already paid their summer tuition were refunded. If summer tuition was paid by financial aid from a student, private or parent loan, the amount of the general grant will be returned to the lender for debt reduction.

The university is exploring the possibility of offering block grants to eligible students from HEERF III funds early in the fall semester.