Tylor Gosselin had every reason to abandon her nursing studies at Greenfield Community College this year.
Her spotty Internet service in rural Hawley meant she couldn’t log on to her courses while her triplets participated in their elementary school’s remote classes.
But Gosselin, 28, decided to homeschool her kids, so she could continue her coursework, which helped her qualify for $1,225 in federal emergency COVID relief payments through the community college. The money paid for groceries and electricity while she pursued her degree.
“It made sense for me to push through for one year as a way to open more opportunities for us all,” Gosselin said.
The federal relief money provided this past year during the pandemic has helped families like Gosselin’s stay afloat. Now community colleges across Massachusetts are hoping the latest and largest infusion of aid — the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan recently signed by President Biden — will serve as further incentive to keep students like Gosselin in school and bring back many of those who have walked away from their degree programs.
“It is a great investment in our institutions,” said Dave Koffman, government affairs director for the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges. “We can use the funds to incentivize students who are on the fence about coming back to school.”
Part of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan includes nearly $40 billion to be divided among the country’s universities and their students. That’s nearly three times the amount set aside for higher education under the CARES Act last spring. And because of a change in the funding formula that counts part-time students — instead of only full-time students — community colleges will receive a significant share.
The state’s 15 community colleges are likely to get a total of $184 million, about a quarter of the $824 million that is coming to Massachusetts’ public and private higher education institutions, according to estimates from the American Council on Education, a Washington, D.C., trade group.
The amount varies by the size of the community college and how many low-income students they serve. Greenfield, a small, rural school, will likely receive $3.5 million, while Bunker Hill Community College, the state’s largest public two-year college, will get $31.3 million.
For community colleges, hit hard by plummeting enrollment, the money offers a lifeline to plug their budgets and help students devastated by the financial toll of the pandemic.
Statewide, community college enrollment fell by 11 percent in the fall of 2020, hitting its lowest level since 1997. The steepest enrollment declines occurred among first-time Black and Latino undergraduates, with nearly one third fewer of them in community colleges, a reflection of the pandemic’s outsize impact on communities of color.
Community college leaders said the pandemic has forced many of their students to make difficult choices. Family job losses have left students behind on their bills, with little money for groceries, let alone college tuition. Some have struggled to pay rent and are homeless or couch surfing, pairing up with family and friends to make ends meet. Others have taken on additional jobs or shifts as front-line employees or grocery delivery workers to save money, leaving little time for their studies.
In rural communities in Western Massachusetts, students have not had enough money for gas to drive to a hot-spot location so they can log in to their classes, and with limited public transportation they have been stuck, said Yves Salomon-Fernández, the president of Greenfield Community College.
“In some ways, you feel like you live in another country,” Salomon-Fernández said. “The pandemic has exacerbated the situation.”
Community college leaders said they haven’t determined how they will use the latest round of relief funds, which the federal government will likely make available this spring. As with previous rounds of federal COVID aid, half the money the schools receive must go directly to students as emergency grants and the other half can be used for institutional needs tied to the pandemic.
The Biden administration has offered schools more flexibility in how they use the funds — such as offsetting lost revenue including from canceled events, empty dorms, and vacant parking decks — but there are restrictions. For example, nationally student aid can’t be directed to international students or participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. However, in Massachusetts a temporary injunction filed by Attorney General Maura Healey has allowed all students to qualify.
Many community college leaders said they have used previous rounds of emergency aid to help students pay rent, buy food, and get mental health counseling. College officials said they will likely continue and expand those programs.
“I am hopeful that students will be served well with this rescue package,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College.
Colleges also used the money to limit layoffs and to purchase laptops and other technology so students could learn remotely.
At Greenfield Community College, the federal COVID relief money this past year has paid for the installation of plexiglass throughout the building and for lab kits to be sent to students’ homes so they could continue their science classes online.
Some colleges are also considering using their share of the most recent round of federal aid to help subsidize child care costs for students and to offset any unpaid college fees. Students with outstanding fees can’t enroll in new classes, and community college leaders fear that for many that is a barrier to finishing their degree programs.
The federal aid will also free up other funds to help community colleges develop workforce training programs that will prepare students for post-pandemic jobs, higher education officials said.
Whether it will be enough to revive the community college sector, which has struggled through the pandemic, is unclear.
“We are incredibly grateful to the federal government for the stimulus funds,” said Valerie Roberson, president of Roxbury Community College. “It’s also too early to determine if the funding will cover all anticipated costs.”
For families like the Gosselins, every additional dollar has helped.
“It’s been chaotic,” Gosselin said last week as she sat in a makeshift classroom in her basement with her furnace and washing machine behind her. “The stimulus has helped. Otherwise it would have put us so far behind.”