The CARES Act, or Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, was passed by Congress in March 2020. Of the $2.2 trillion allotted to provide quick and much-needed economic aid to the Americans impacted by the pandemic, $14B was given to the Office of Postsecondary Education as the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, or HEERF.

In January 2021, The US Department of Education announced an additional $21.2B would become available to higher education institutions in an effort to support continuous learning delivery for students. There were also different requirements and funding based on the type of school with a range of support going to Title IV schools, HBCUs, TCCUs, MSIs, and SIPs.

Despite these efforts, the costs associated with COVID-19 safety measures continue to trouble higher-ed leaders. Additionally, student retention continues to be a great challenge for today’s schools.

According to Inside Higher Ed, undergraduate spring enrollment is down:
4.5% overall
9.5% at public two-year colleges
3.3% at public four-year colleges
15% in international student enrollment

There’s light at the end of the COVID tunnel for institutions: President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will offer a much needed $40 billion to higher education and more students and teachers are receiving the vaccine.

Yet the past year has been tough, with 22 states cutting a combined $1.9 billion in higher-ed funding. With these additional funds in place, schools are likely to find themselves in a better place to invest in both the safety of their campus and the new needs of today’s students.

Faced with enrollment challenges, university leaders must do more to not only attract new students, but ensure student retention of subsets of students who may be struggling. Students with disabilities – many of whom are not reporting their needs – is one student group which schools can consider to focus on and support.

A plethora of students who have reported disabilities continue to struggle while in hybrid and remote learning settings. Many of them need accessibility services, such as notetaking and captioning, in order to function and participate at the same level as their peers.

The greater issue to consider is students who also need accessible materials but are not reporting their disabilities for a variety of reasons. When choice and preferences for learning aren’t proactively being provided to them, their needs aren’t being met.
“It’s very important to look at who you’re excluding when you’re not including inclusive design and when you’re working from a model that students need to jump through some hoops to enroll or connect with the Office of Disability Services,” said Jody Goldstein, Director of Disability Services at UNCW.

Goldstein has successfully spearheaded peer mentoring programs to support students with disabilities, social support groups for students in the Autism Spectrum and awareness programming to impact campus cultures and drive inclusion at UNCW and the University of Massachusetts – Lowell.

Many higher-ed students aren’t reporting their disabilities, including:

  • Traditional college-age students
    • 19% of men
    • 20% percent women
  •  Older college students
    • 23% of veterans or non-traditional students age 30+ (Source: National Center for Education, 2018)  

Dedicating these new resources to help all students with AI technologies that provide more accessible and engaging materials might be the secret sauce to student retention. With more distractions when learning from home and pandemic-related news, students need greater assistance to ensure they are keeping up with their courses and retaining the material.

Additionally, with classes happening live over Zoom, Blackboard and other platforms, schools who aren’t providing real-time services like CART and live course captioning to help students aren’t providing them with equitable learning opportunities.

Verbit is working with many schools, such as Virginia Tech, Oregon State University, University of Florida, University of Pittsburgh, UCSB and others to provide them with captioning, transcription, audio description and even subtitles in different languages to help them meet the needs of students with disability and learning needs (reported or not). Verbit is also working with them to proactively offer these tools to all students within the class whenever possible to create more inclusive courses and campuses to account for the gap in reporting disability-related needs.

With more funds from the ARPA to activate on, school leaders are in a better place to invest in technologies to help them keep more students and see them through to graduation.

More information on HEERF II funding can be found at CRRSAA: Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF II) here.