The Journal Gazette
Sunday, June 13, 2021 1:00 am

Local colleges ponder aid use

Federal money to benefit PFW, Ivy Tech students

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – From student financial aid and web cameras to recouping revenue lost to the pandemic, Fort Wayne's regional campuses are trying to put the millions in federal aid flowing to Indiana's colleges and universities to good use.

“We have targeted most of this money initially for student help and emergency relief,” Purdue University Fort Wayne Chancellor Ronald Elsenbaumer said. “We have helped students with eligible expenses related to the disruption of campus operations.”

That includes helping with food, housing, course materials, technology and health care.

The university received more than 6,500 student applications for financial assistance and so far has disbursed $5.4 million in direct aid. Several million has been held back for another round of assistance this fall.

It remains to be seen if higher education enrollment bounces back in the fall.

Regional campuses around the state and nation had seen declines for several years before COVID-19 hit as the expense and importance of college is debated. The pandemic made it worse.

Enrollment at Purdue Fort Wayne in 2019 was 7,349, which dropped to 6,879 in 2020 and 5,908 in spring 2021.

“It's been a rough year for everybody. I think we are doing a pretty good job rebounding,” said James Toole, associate professor of political science. “I'm looking forward to having a fall semester that is normal – or as close to normal as we can make it.”

Toole also is the presiding officer of the Purdue Fort Wayne Senate, a faculty group.

“I am hoping we now stabilize in terms of enrollment and finances. This is challenging,” he said. “The goal is to rebuild student recruitment and work hard at retaining the students we have. We are hardly unique in that. Colleges all around the country have had difficult financial times.”

It would be worse without the federal aid, which has come in three installments. Purdue Fort Wayne qualified for about $16 million in the first two rounds. The administration is still waiting for official word on additional money from the American Rescue Plan, though estimates for a third allocation are about $18 million.

In all three rounds, universities and colleges are required to spend half on student aid. The rest is for institutional expenses related to the pandemic.

Elsenbaumer said about $2.7 million so far has been used to reimburse the university for expenses. Purdue Fort Wayne bought personal protective equipment, upgraded ventilation systems in all buildings, hired temporary cleaning workers and made infrastructure changes. And it spent money on the transition from face-to-face to online instruction, including upgrading Wi-Fi, buying web cameras and software and buying audio equipment.

As for the new money, Purdue Fort Wayne will apply to have $3.2 million in state funding cuts covered as well as some enrollment losses.

That is what Ivy Tech Community College did – using about $17.2 million statewide to offset the state funding cut and $8.3 million for enrollment drops last summer and fall. Calculations are ongoing for the spring semester.

Dominick Chase, Ivy Tech senior vice president for business affairs and chief financial officer, said the community college system also was reimbursed for furniture to allow social distancing on campus, foggers to clean rooms, as well as faculty training and development to shift to remote teaching.

So far, about $5.2 million has been used for Fort Wayne's Ivy Tech campus – mostly for direct student aid.

As for the incoming American Rescue Plan, Ivy Tech plans to buy course material for a digital-first model that will reduce book costs for students in the fall.

“That is exciting. We are doubling down on student success and student outcomes,” Chase said. He noted Ivy Tech largely doesn't have dorms and food service so the system can focus some of the incoming $151 million elsewhere.

Elsenbaumer said Purdue Fort Wayne is waiting on official word on the third round of funding so no plan is firmly set. But one thing that isn't in the cards is any kind of bonus or raise for faculty and staff.

Though Indiana's K-12 districts have been using federal dollars to issue one-time stipends or hazard pay, it is less clear for higher education.

Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on May 11 specifically says the funds can't be used for “senior administrator or executive salaries, benefits, bonuses, contracts, incentives, stock buybacks, shareholder dividends, capital distributions, and stock options, or any other cash or other benefit for a senior administrator or executive.”

But it is silent on faculty and staff.

Toole said he understands the financial challenges and doesn't expect any one-time bonus.

“The only thing I would say is when the fiscal situation does ease at some point, I think faculty raises and bonuses should be a top priority,” he said.

At one point last year, Purdue Fort Wayne was preparing for up to $3 million in cuts. Elsenbaumer said the university controlled expenses rather than made cuts. One big savings was eliminating travel. And a strategic hiring freeze meant no layoffs, though open positions largely went unfilled.

As for this fall, the university has budgeted for an 8% enrollment drop, which is less than last year's projection of 10%.

“We are hopeful that we don't get to that level,” Elsenbaumer said. “New student enrollment recruitment is looking more positive than it did last year.”

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