Mary Harrison, staff writer
Over two million dollars in federal aid for students has been allocated to Berry through the third round of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF III). One-time applications for compensation due to financial disruption are open to all Berry undergraduate students through the end of the semester and are available on the VikingWeb “Finances” tab, where the student account center is located.
The HEERF III student aid portion, at $2,049,855, marks the largest amount of federal coronavirus aid that Berry has received for students since the start of the pandemic last year. Previous amounts were just under $800,000 each.
Revived for a third round in March 2021 by the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, the HEERF fund was established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020 and refilled by the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) in December 2020.
Nearly $400,000 has been awarded to 80 students since applications were opened in mid-July, according to Director of Financial Aid Noemi Sarrion. 32 applications were still under review at the time, but none had been disqualified.
“The pandemic is still an active national emergency, and [any student] should be covered by this funding,” Sarrion said.
All current Berry undergraduates are eligible for the funding should they submit an application. According to Sarrion, the college notified sophomore, juniors and seniors by email in July. Current first-year students were alerted by email on Oct. 12.
Vice President for Enrollment Management Andrew Bressette said that HEERF aims to help students who have experienced financial issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The federal government is really looking for us to ensure that, first and foremost, students who have had some sort of COVID disruption, that that disruption doesn’t prevent them from completing their education,” Bressette said, who oversees the HEERF III Grant Committee.
Minimum funding awards are $1,000. The standard maximum funding award is $6,495, as based off the 2021-2022 Pell Grant, according to Berry’s quarterly HEERF III student aid report issued Sept. 30.
The committee, chaired by Sarrion and including staff from Berry’s Offices of Enrollment Management, Business and Finance meets multiple times a month to review and approve applications on a rolling basis.
Applications are prioritized first by financial disruption caused by the pandemic, such as parental unemployment or extra medical expenses, and secondly by overall financial need, as based on expected family contribution calculated by the FAFSA and receiving the Pell Grant or other need-based grants, in accordance with U.S. Department of Education guidelines. The committee could raise the grant limit for students facing these exceptional circumstances.
Due to the rolling basis of applications, funds could be sent as soon as two weeks after submission or as long as several weeks, Sarrion said, depending on how much need the application demonstrates. Upon approval, students receive a check and letter from the college in their campus mailbox.
The only reason students would not be awarded a grant, according to Bressette, is if they do not prove a financial disruption caused by the pandemic or if their financial disruption does not create much need.
“If you couldn’t really demonstrate a COVID disruption, that would cause us to say, ‘does this really meet the criteria?’” Bressette explained. “If your family’s income went from, say, 2 million dollars to 1.5 million dollars, we might say, ‘okay, you’ve had a disruption, but are you really a needy family, by the federal definition.’”
The application will remain open until Berry begins to distribute funds by block awarding, when the college will select students to receive grants based on criteria used to distribute HEERF I and HEERF II funds. Sarrion anticipates the move to block awarding will happen early in the spring 2022 semester.
“[O]nce we have prioritized all of these applicants by their financial need, [we will] move forward with block awarding, which is the approach that we followed [previously] with HEERF I and HEERF II,” Sarrion said.
Previously, conditions for block awarding included being fully eligible for federal aid, an expected family contribution of $25,000 or less, having a large amount of student debt, meeting satisfactory academic progress requirements for current financial aid and working comparably many hours in a LifeWorks job, according to final reports on HEERF I and II funding.
Between 50 to 60% of Berry students at the time received some amount of grant money from the HEERF I and HEERF II student aid funds, according to Bressette and the final student aid portion reports.
Bressette explained that the college chose to open applications for HEERF III funds before awarding block grants to further prioritize students with exceptional need.
“The application process allows those who had a COVID disruption to really reach out first and foremost,” Bressette said. “In the fall, as COVID numbers were increasing, we decided to hold off on block grants to make sure that if COVID numbers continued to go up, any family that had a disruption that might occur during the fall had the opportunity to apply.”