In March and April as the spring semester came to a close, the COVID-19 pandemic upended the nation’s higher education institutions as they scrambled to get classes online for huge numbers of students.

Since their unparalleled shift to remote learning, those colleges and universities confronted a triple whammy of coronavirus effects: budget cuts and other resource constraints, unbudgeted spending in response to COVID-19, and concerns about declining enrollment, experts said.

They also witnessed a swift elevation of the IT function, from a behind-the-scenes workhorse to a strategic enabler of student and institutional success.

“There used to be a little more space between leadership decisions around academics and the role that IT plays in student success. Academics and course delivery was a tangential concern compared to security, networking, and IT infrastructure,” said Adrienne Garber, senior higher education strategist for Dell Technologies. “Now, senior leadership is relying on the IT function as a strategic partner within the university ecosystem.”

Pandemic-driven needs are driving large IT infrastructure investments that will provide long-term benefits, Garber noted. “It’s about the institution’s data center, its system integrations, high-performance computing, security, storage, and reliable network connections – but it’s more than just technology needs. It’s about shifting IT from a cost center to a revenue generator within the institution and repositioning IT as an innovator and enabler of the long-term sustainability of the institution and ultimately the health and wellness of its students, faculty, and staff.”

The CARES Act Provides Essential Funding

Funding via the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided a vital cash infusion. The bill, signed into law in March to fight the harmful effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, provides billions of dollars to higher education institutions. The funding enabled schools to provide direct relief to students, address significant changes in the delivery of instruction, and prepare to reopen.

The CARES Act provides multiple funding streams for higher education institutions, including:

  • The $14 billion Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEER). Funds must be used within one year of receipt
  • 90 percent goes directly to institutions via a formula based upon the numbers of full-time and non-full-time Pell grant recipients not exclusively learning online. Half of each institutions’ allocation is required to go directly to students; the other half can be used for institutional needs
  • Of the remaining 10 percent, 7.5 percent is directed to minority-serving institutions, and 2.5 percent is reserved for institutions that the Department of Education secretary determines have the greatest unmet needs related to coronavirus response;
  • The $3 billion Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), which the nation’s governors are distributing at their discretion to “significantly impacted” higher education institutions and K-12 school districts. Funds must be awarded by governors within one year of receipt; and
  • $100 million in grants under the Department of Education’s Project SERV, available through Sept. 30, 2021. Project SERV grants are designed to help school districts and post-secondary institutions recover from violent or traumatic events that disrupt learning. The grants can support remote learning, counseling, and disinfecting schools.

In addition, some states are allocating Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) monies to education initiatives. The CRF is a $150 billion CARES grant program for states, territories, and local and tribal governments. Funds must be spent on pandemic response activities between March 1 and Dec. 30, 2020, that were not already budgeted. As of early September, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that 27 states allocated a total of $4.3 billion to higher education. North Dakota, for example, allocated approximately $44.5 million in CRF monies to higher education institutions. The money supported technology and instructional needs including virtual simulators, classroom and facility restructuring, telework equipment and software, academic technology and software, and more.

According to an analysis of 48 governors’ plans for GEER funds by the Hunt Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to education policy, and FutureEd, an education-focused think tank, 36 plans set aside funds for expanding broadband to students without internet access; 34 plans devoted funds to laptops and other devices; and 35 plans designated funds for curriculum and teacher training to deliver remote learning. Most governors devoted money to both K-12 and higher education.

Shifting Guidance Complicates Higher Education Relief

Institutions eagerly anticipated the funds, but vague and changing guidance from the Federal Department of Education about how to use HEER monies and when they would be dispersed caused concern and considerable confusion.

“There was a huge amount of discussion nationwide about how institutions should go about awarding the student-dedicated funds,” said Lynn Barnes, senior vice provost for strategic enrollment at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). “Even on the institutional portion, there were a lot of gray areas as to what the funds can be used for. I heard from colleagues all over the state and even across the nation about how difficult it was to go about distributing the funds.”

Patrick Lane, vice president of policy analysis and research at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), observed: “Nobody wants to run afoul of the Feds. At the same time, schools were trying to manage a huge number of competing needs. Managing through that period of time was difficult.”

The evolving guidance made it challenging for universities to commit to taking the funds, said Eminence Griffin, senior manager for government affairs at Dell. Some schools took a wait-and-see approach, letting peer institutions serve as a guide to using the HEER monies.

“Universities didn’t understand exactly what they were signing up for. The number of people involved in the decision to take the funds made the decision even more complex,” Griffin said. The decision involved schools’ presidents, chancellors, cabinets, boards, lawyers, and financial officers.

Disbursing student aid presented another challenge for as many as 25 percent of institutions, which previously had no mechanisms for delivering emergency aid to students, said Peter Granville, senior associate at the Century Foundation, a public policy research institute. “The positive side of this is that now virtually every institution has experience delivering emergency aid. From a technical standpoint, it should be much easier in the future,” he noted.

UTSA adapted its emergency aid application for students so they could request CARES funds. “A hefty percentage of the requests were related to help with technology,” Barnes said. As a result, the university awarded about $3 million in CARES funds in the form of $500 technology grants to summer students based on financial aid criteria.

Schools Confront Myriad Technology Needs

In the spring and summer, institutions addressed a dizzying array of technology needs as they shifted to online instruction and started planning for the fall: broadband access and network bandwidth, devices for students and teachers, classroom hardware, collaboration platforms, computing capacity, online proctoring services, and faculty training.

“As early as April, we were taking an assessment of all of our classrooms to see what we needed to make them ready for classes in the fall,” said Madhavi Marasinghe, CIO at the University of North Dakota (UND). “This was a major collaborative effort with facilities, IT, the teaching and learning unit, and the colleges.”

Many schools outfitted classrooms with audio and video technology to accommodate hybrid classes. The technology enables synchronous teaching of students learning remotely, as well as students socially distanced around the classroom. It captures the instructor, whiteboard, and other content simultaneously, and is streamed in real time via collaboration platforms. Groups of students rotate between learning remotely and in the classroom.

At UND, about 220 classrooms were retrofitted with technology and social distancing measures before the fall semester began. The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) transformed about 200 classrooms that have large-scale seating to accommodate hybrid instruction.

Labs presented another challenge, Marasinghe said, because they require hands-on work and specialized hardware and software. The IT team at UND created prototypes for labs in disciplines such as chemistry, biology, and physics that would enable lab partners to work together – one in the classroom, and one off campus. Faculty and students tested the prototypes and made recommendations to meet specific class requirements. The basic lab station setup included a camera, microphone, headset, and tablet computer. The university also bolstered Wi-Fi in the labs to handle students’ increased communication needs.

During the summer, schools also trained faculty in use of classroom technology and effective online teaching.

“A lot of professors were thrust into this online world in March and had no idea how to translate their teaching. So there was quite a bit of training for professors in how to deliver instruction in engaging ways online,” said Phyllis Jordan, editorial director at FutureEd.

Online proctoring became a huge cost for some institutions, noted Russ Poulin, WICHE vice president for technology-enhanced education and executive director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. Some schools used CARES money, while others reprogrammed funds to cover it. Rerouting funds was a common approach to the unprecedented needs brought on by the pandemic, particularly in the spring as institutions shifted to remote learning before receiving CARES funds. Academic innovation funds were tapped, as were travel funds, Poulin said.

Laptops Keep Students Learning

Many schools used CARES funds to provide laptops to students in need. At UAB, CARES funding provided seed money for a laptop loaner program benefiting 4,700 students.

“A lot of folks didn’t know they would need a camera or a mic when they started college, and so their laptops were not adequate,” said Curt Carver, vice president and CIO at UAB.

Some schools created laptop programs that incentivized students to commit to their programs or to stay enrolled. At UND, $4.4 million in CARES funds is dedicated to providing laptops to 3,500 students with financial need. About 2,500 laptops have been awarded; students who remain enrolled through the fall semester get to keep them.

“Many have lost their jobs or been furloughed. We know that it’s a tough time. We did not want the students to feel that technology is a barrier to their education,” Marasinghe said.

Pandemic response is spurring some schools to adopt the one-to-one model common in K-12 schools, in which each student receives a standard device. “IT management is more streamlined, responsive and cost efficient in a one-to-one model where devices and configurations are standardized – and it also means schools have the opportunity to address equity and access issues across their student populations that may have surfaced during the pandemic,” Garber said.

Infrastructure Improvements Enabled Robust Education

When the pandemic hit, “there was a very quick realization that we are still expected to operate the university and deliver every aspect of instruction. And so [we figured out] how we do that in a robust way,” Barnes said.

After UTSA pivoted to 100 percent online instruction in March, Kendra Ketchum, vice president for information management and technology, received daily capacity reports from her team, which she reported up to the university president and cabinet. “I started to immediately see our consumption increase and our demand increase. We’re reaching 80 percent storage capacity. If I didn’t share that with our leaders, we would hit that wall,” Ketchum said. “I better have the ability to scale.”

By May, Ketchum had a plan in place. The university invested $14 million in hyperconverged infrastructure, high-performance computing, and unified storage – $11 million in operational savings, $3 million in CARES funds, and a $15 million matching technology grant from Dell. The investment enabled the university to expand the capacity of its virtual desktop environment by 750 percent, ensuring that students could access all of their academic software, desktops, and campus resources remotely. It also enabled a full data center refresh, with redundancy and disaster recovery.

Other CARES-funded IT projects at UTSA addressed cybersecurity, VPN capacity, wireless network coverage in parking areas, and hot spots for students.

UAB also upgraded infrastructure to handle increased demand from students, faculty, and staff accessing campus resources remotely. IT leaders had planned to replace the VPN concentrator; instead, they spun up an additional concentrator and split the load between the two. The university also deployed virtual desktop infrastructure, “a more holistic solution to the problem rather than just encrypting the path [with VPN],” Carver noted. “It ended up being an opportunity for us to deploy a more secure system.”

Technology Enables Social Distancing Beyond the Classroom

UAB also used CARES Act funds to upgrade Wi-Fi and deploy Power over Ethernet sensors to create areas for socially distant studying. The basketball arena, for example, got 100 directional Wi-Fi access points positioned on the monitors in the arena center. The concourses are also covered with Wi-Fi.

“If you’re at a basketball game, you expect average or mediocre Wi-Fi coverage,” Carver said. “We dramatically increased our Wi-Fi to handle academic needs. Now it can support taking a test online, studying online, or video sessions.”

The sensors automatically count people coming and going from the arena and other buildings. Capacity data is displayed in a web-based dashboard so students can make informed decisions about where to study. The university plans to expand the sensors to its green spaces and additional buildings.

UAB also broadcast Wi-Fi into several parking lots so university students and local K-12 students could access online learning from their cars, and it built an application that shows where free Wi-Fi is available across the state.

Additional Funding Is Needed

Higher education experts say more funding is critical to address ongoing pandemic response and help institutions weather expected funding cuts. Higher education is often the first function of state government to see funding cuts in a recession, Granville noted. Even before the pandemic, state funding for public higher education had not recovered to the levels seen before the Great Recession, he observed.

“Everybody’s trying to access these different pockets of funding [in the CARES Act] and bring them together to meet their needs,” Lane said. “At the end of the day, though, all of these different buckets don’t add up to the costs that are being incurred.”

Jordan agreed: “No one thinks that this first installation of education funding is going to be enough to help universities or K-12 schools survive what’s likely to be deep cuts in state and local revenue,” due to reduced sales tax and income tax collections.

To create efficiencies and conserve budget dollars, some schools are sharing resources across campuses – courses, software, and open education resources. “Sometimes, sharing across campuses is going to be the only way that you can fill those [budget] holes,” Poulin said.

Colleges and universities can also take advantage of vendor resources to identify funding sources. The Dell Technologies Grants Support Program, for example, is a no-cost offering that Dell provides for its customers. The program delivers a customized report of grant opportunities, eligibility requirements, and application deadlines. Schools can then apply directly or purchase grant-writing assistance from a non-Dell provider, The Grants Office.

New Federal legislation would provide billions in new aid. On Oct. 1, the House of Representatives passed an updated Heroes Act, which would deliver nearly $40 billion to higher education institutions. A bill introduced in June in the Senate, the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act, would deliver $132 billion to higher education institutions. However, congressional negotiators and the White House haven’t been able to forge a spending agreement. As the Nov. 3 general election approaches, chances of funding relief this year are uncertain at best.

Any new funding should simplify application processes and remove the ambiguities schools navigated with the CARES Act, Griffin said. “Future funding should be very clear about what is expected of universities at the outset, and be flexible enough to account for a wide range of needs, from back-end IT support to expanded student housing,” she said.

Schools Are Stronger Than Before

Despite their funding gaps, university IT leaders found a silver lining in the pandemic cloud: competitive advantage.

“Our marching orders have been to take care of our students, faculty, and staff, and to emerge from the pandemic stronger than we were before, with a competitive advantage compared to other institutions,” Carver said.

Forward-thinking institutions are looking far beyond pandemic response, noted Ketchum, who led development of a four-year IT plan at UTSA, working with university leadership to ensure it aligned with university strategy.

“The folks that have a firefighting mentality are surviving. The folks that are thriving are the folks that are looking at how can we continue to innovate in spite of all of this,” she said.

Leaders also say pandemic-driven changes to delivery of instruction aren’t going away. Students are showing that they can be successful learning online, and faculty are getting comfortable with the new teaching environment, Marasinghe noted.

“This mixed modality of delivering instruction is going to stay,” Barnes said. “From a platform and an infrastructure perspective, we’re going to continue to deliver the experience that students need. I can’t overemphasize – it’s not about getting through it. It’s about positioning ourselves for the new world order in higher education.”

Leaders Offer Recommendations From the Trenches

Higher education leaders offer sage advice for securing and using CARES Act funds for IT initiatives:

  • Put students first, and speak up. “You’ve got to advocate for your students,” Ketchum said. “If I don’t speak up and we have shortages of storage and IT outages, I’m not doing my job.”
  • Engage with stakeholders. “Move with agility, but do it by being informed by stakeholders,” said Carver, who participates in a biweekly town hall meeting at UAB. “This is not the time to retreat to the ivory tower. This is the time to engage – virtually, of course.”
  • Think and do things differently. To reduce proctoring costs, for example, educate faculty on other forms of assessment. “You have better pedagogy and less expense,” Poulin said.
  • Delegate and empower. “If I tried to micromanage all of those [projects] as CIO, we would have failed in all of them,” Carver said. “We had to empower our deputies to own these projects. My job was to keep them all aligned moving forward.”
  • Harness the collective intelligence. Bring together senior leaders from across the institution: the president, provost, CFO, general counsel, deans and department chairs, board of trustees, CIO, CISO, and the like – to assess needs, prioritize, and leverage all available funding sources, including vendor assistance. Dell and other companies, for example, offer creative financial services such as short-term leases on computing devices, which can help schools grappling with uncertainties such as forecasting technology needs and future enrollments, Garber noted.
  • Document, document, document. “Keeping track of where the aid goes is a must” to ensure the money is spent as intended, Marasinghe said. Make sure processes are vetted with audit and risk management, Barnes added.
  • Create a culture of innovation. “Through the CARES funding, universities can create long-term agents of innovation that are doing amazing things the right way, by collaboration and shared governance,” Carver said. “You’re positioning your institution to have a competitive advantage on the other side of this.”
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