The Case for Using Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds on Technology

By: Sarah Roberts



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In response to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the US government created three Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) categories. They include the Coronavirus Aid and Economic Security Act (CARES), The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Institutions across the country have access to these funds, but data suggests that many schools are leaving money on the table that could be put to good use.

While institutions struggle to find strategic ways to use their available funds, all three acts allow for spending on technology. The inclusion of technology is no coincidence given the heavy reliance on innovative solutions to make virtual classrooms engaging and accessible when schools across the country had to move online. Incorporating innovative technology like the closed captioning and transcription tools from Verbit is one way to use these funds for the betterment of educational institutions and students. Now that spending deadlines are approaching, leaders need to identify the optimal ways to use these resources to improve their institutions and student experiences.

Deadlines and Available Funds


CARES was the first relief fund granted to educational institutions in the early days of the pandemic. The initial deadline to use the $14 billion fund was December 2020, but Congress later extended that date to December 2021. Although recipients of the CARES Act did spend most of this money, with the deadline on the horizon, it’s vital to ensure the prompt use of any remaining funds through this program. Remember that recipients will need to return the amount they do not use.

Even if an institution already spent its CARES Act funds, the fact that their school qualified for this relief program means it also qualifies for the two other acts and additional money. CRRSA and ARPA present many opportunities, and unlike CARES Act funds, institutions have yet to use most of these resources.


CRRSAA includes $23 billion for public and private higher education institutions. Recipients may use the funds to cover retroactive costs dating back to March 13, 2020, and future expenses through September 30, 2023. Congress has expressed frustrations over the small portion of these funds that higher education institutions have used to date.


The Department of Education released an additional $36 billion in funding for higher education under ARPA. The deadline to use this money is December 21, 2024. Similar to CRRSAA, institutions have not spent much of the available ARPA funds. The lack of spending related to this act is also leading to complaints in Congress.

Using HEERF Funds on Technology

The possibilities for HEERF spending are extensive. To test whether a cost could qualify, institutions should ask whether it is an expense caused by COVID or a cost related to reopening. In either case, they will likely qualify. Although there are nuances to each act, all three allow for spending on IT.

Some technology-related expenses that qualify under HEERF include:

-Implementing Highflex course models where students can attend in-person or online
-Improving cybersecurity
-Expanding online learning offerings
-Providing hardware or software to students and staff
-Expanding accessibility efforts for students with disabilities
-Leveraging accessibility enhancing tools like transcription and audio description
-Investments aimed at increasing student engagement in online or hybrid courses

It’s worth noting that while remote learning is waning along with COVID-related restrictions, many experts predict that virtual classes will and should continue to offer alternatives to traditional education models.

Increased Spending on Accessibility Tools

According to a recent study, only 31% of leaders at schools that adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) believe that they are doing enough to accommodate students with disabilities. Research also shows that university students are unlikely to request accessibility tools, so institutions that proactively offer access can help their students thrive by giving them the tools they might not have known they needed.

The reliance on video education, which 93% of universities are now using to engage their students, means a greater need for captioning and audio description technology to make this instruction method available to more students.

Using HEERF to offer better accessibility tools is a positive way to leverage the spending power that these acts provide higher education institutions. Leaders must understand how much money is available and consider investing in accessibility tools and other resources to avoid missing deadlines related to these three relief acts.

Verbit offers captioning, transcription, translation and audio description services. To learn more about using HEERF resources to provide university students with assistive technologies, contact Verbit.