Area college leaders talk about impact of American Rescue Plan

Spoke Friday as part of a Zoom webinar with U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, and U.S. Rep Sean Casten, D-Downers Grove

Waubonsee Community College President Christine Sobek knows the many challenges the pandemic has created for the college’s students.

The college intends to use the funding it is receiving as part of the federal government’s American Rescue Plan to focus on those needs.

“We are focused on using the student allocated dollars to retain and graduate our current students,” Sobek said. “We are also going to be using the student allocated funds to reenergize those students who have taken a break during the pandemic due to many financial barriers.”

Sobek and other area college leaders spoke Friday as part of a Zoom webinar with U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, and U.S. Rep Sean Casten, D-Downers Grove, about the American Rescue Plan funding. At least half of the funding each institution receives will be distributed in the form of emergency grants to students who are facing hunger, homelessness, and other hardship. 

Waubonsee Community College is receiving $13.5 million in American Rescue Plan funding. Sobek said the college is developing a strategy for the institutional funds that will provide students with the technology and resources they need to be successful.

“As an example, using our prior federal funding, the college awarded almost $1.8 million in technology grants, which provided more than 2,800 students the necessary means to purchase laptops, hotspots, cameras and other necessary technology needed for their coursework,” she said.

The college has also launched the Reach Higher scholarship, which will allow students to apply for additional funding to address issues like food insecurity and housing.

“We made this very simple for students to access, because we know we want to disperse the money to our students as quickly and as efficiently as possible,” Sobek said.

Foster talked about the importance of the American Rescue Plan.

“Our districts are home to outstanding education institutions that attract and educate students from Illinois and all over the world,” Foster said. “It would have been unacceptable to let these institutions and their students buckle under the serious financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. And by sending direct cash assistance, half of which was directed to be distributed in the form of emergency cash assistance grants to students facing hunger, homelessness and other hardship, the American Rescue Plan funding was intended to provide support to students trying to finish school and complete their education.”

Institutions can also use the funds to provide academic or mental health support systems for students and to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including through vaccination efforts.

Casten noted the many challenges that colleges and universities faced when the pandemic first struck.

“It was so clear that we had two huge crises in addition to everything from COVID we had to grapple with,” Casten said. “The first was that for a lot of our colleges and universities, the revenue model depends on them having students present. Of course, that wasn’t possible given public health concerns. But the second was that the lives of the students themselves were massively disrupted. Twenty-five percent of high school graduates last year decided to delay their college plans, more often than not, because economically, they just couldn’t afford it.”

Elgin Community College President David Sam said under the American Rescue Plan, “more students than ever before can receive these funds.”

He said during the first two rounds of federal funding, the college identified students who needed financial help, but weren’t able to help them because of the restrictions put on the funds. Elgin Community College is receiving $17.5 million in American Rescue Plan funding.

The College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn is set to receive about $36.5 million in American Rescue Plan funding.

“Access to high quality education at an affordable price is critical to students’ success, especially in today’s challenging times,” COD President Brian Caputo said. “As the state’s largest community college, COD is gratified to see that Congressman Casten and Congressman Foster are putting significant dollars behind our work in addressing the needs of more than 21,000 students.”

Caputo said the funds will be put to good use to help ensure the success of students. He said the college plans to use approximately $18.5 million to assist students with tuition.

“In addition, the institutional portion will cover COVID related expenses, including those we will incur to promote the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff,” Caputo said.

Joliet Junior College is set to receive $21.7 million in funding. Joliet Junior College President Judy Mitchell said the college has awarded approximately $6 million to date to help its students.

“The need is staggering,” Mitchell said. ‘We have a nursing student who is struggling to pay for gasoline so she can drive to her clinical. Both of her parents were ill with COVID. Their prolonged illness created a situation where they could not afford groceries or medicine. And we have a homeless student who is living out of her car, trying to finish classes last spring without access to a computer. These experiences that you have heard today are unfortunately common. What I’m happy to share is that these students and so many others ultimately found support through the federal funding we received.”