HBCUs got a windfall of COVID relief money. Here's how colleges are spending it Historically Black colleges and universities are using federal COVID relief funds to cancel student debt, upgrade campus infrastructure and retain students who struggle because of financial barriers.

HBCUs got a windfall of federal COVID relief. Here's how colleges are spending it

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JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When the federal government started doling out COVID relief money to colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, HBCUs, received a windfall. But that money came with a deadline. It needs to be spent by the end of this school year. Schools have been getting creative about using the funds in ways that will serve students for years to come. WUNC's Liz Schlemmer reports.

LIZ SCHLEMMER, BYLINE: Elijah Love is in his senior year at North Carolina A&T State University. He says he was inspired to enroll after watching his friend study computer science there.

ELIJAH LOVE: He'd be on his computer doing some coding or doing some cool looking stuff. And I would always be around his shoulder like, what's that? What's this? And so then that led to him, like, yo, you know you could just come to school and learn this yourself, right?

SCHLEMMER: So he did. But a couple years in, the pandemic hit.

LOVE: And we had all our courses online. I kind of slacked off in maybe a class or two.

SCHLEMMER: He enrolled in summer classes to catch up. And then he got the bill. The classes were free. N.C. A&T had used federal COVID relief funding to pay for them. It's helping Love graduate on time with less debt.

LOVE: I got right back on track, right back on track. I thought it was great. It was a great opportunity for the people struggling right now with everything that's going on in the world, especially, I know a lot of people are having hard times.

SCHLEMMER: HBCUs have been underfunded by federal and state governments. But this time, because of the way federal relief money was allocated, they got a lot of it. For one thing, a lot of the funding targeted schools that serve more low-income students, which HBCUs do. And there was a whole other pot of money, $5.2 billion, just for HBCUs.

KENNY SPAYD: By far, it's the most amount of money we've ever received.

SCHLEMMER: Kenny Spayd is the business director of Fayetteville State University, a small, public HBCU in North Carolina. He says the nearly $80 million his university received is equal to more than half of their annual operating budget.

SPAYD: It's been incredibly helpful and transformative, not only for us, but for our students as we navigate this continuing pandemic.

SCHLEMMER: Fayetteville State also spent funds on free summer courses. On top of that, they paid off students' outstanding balances and upgraded building and technology infrastructure. Those were common themes across the HBCUs NPR spoke with. The federal money did come with a summer 2023 deadline and rules on how it could be spent. But some schools got more than enough to cover those requirements and pay for COVID safety precautions.

SIDNEY EVANS: Our No. 1 priority was to ensure that our students weather the pandemic as well as possible.

SCHLEMMER: Sidney Evans is a finance administrator at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He says the school spent about $10 million to upgrade their technology. More than 200 classrooms got new cameras so students could get a better view of their classes remotely.

EVANS: And because we have invested in this technology, we are expanding our online delivery of degree programs, our online courses.

SCHLEMMER: That will help grow the university in the future. Another popular spending item among HBCUs was paying off students' outstanding balances. That's because when a student's balance gets too high, they can't enroll in classes again until it's paid off.

LARRY ROBINSON: We have relieved more than $60 million in debt that our students owed us.

SCHLEMMER: That's Florida A&M University president Larry Robinson. The school used a big chunk of its relief money to give all current students a clean slate.

ROBINSON: Those students, you know, thousands of them, were able to stay with us. And that's going to pay off big time.

SCHLEMMER: Robinson says they've already seen a significant increase in their freshman to sophomore year retention rate. N.C. A&T, where Elijah Love is studying computer science, also used relief money to clear students' balances, but that wasn't the bulk of their spending. N.C. A&T is the largest HBCU in the country, and it received one of the largest HBCU relief packages. In addition to paying off student debt and offering free summer classes, it gave free textbooks to all students, housing and dining discounts for residential students and free iPads for freshmen. Robert Pompey is N.C. A&T's vice chancellor for business and finance.

ROBERT POMPEY: Imagine going to your first day of class, and you not only have textbooks, but you have your iPad with you. Imagine going to your first day of class, and your cost of dining and housing has been reduced by $500. That is significant.

SCHLEMMER: Some students have received more than $4,000 of benefits a year.

POMPEY: We consider these funds that we received investments, and we've invested in our students.

SCHLEMMER: Although federal funding will run out, Pompey says the university is looking for ways to continue giving students discounts on things like textbooks. He says those investments will help uplift students, families and their communities. For NPR News, I'm Liz Schlemmer in Greensboro, N.C.

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