Facing losses, Sul Ross and its students will split $1.8 million in federal funds

ALPINE — Texas received a staggering $1 billion out of the $14 billion Congress allocated to higher education in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. For local Sul Ross State University, their share of the Texas pie will amount to $1.8 million.

These federal funds will be a lifeline for schools to survive the revenue losses that occurred when the pandemic closed down higher education institutions suddenly this March. When Sul Ross shut its doors, students needed housing refunds, distance learning fees mounted, fundraising events and sports games were canceled and the school was left to figure out the bill, according to Chris Clifford, the school’s vice president for Budget and Finance.

In a call early last week, Clifford said the $1.8 million will be divided in half, with roughly $900,000 going to emergency student aid and the other half to institutional recovery.

A committee with representation from student life, student accounting and financial aid was formed, with the hopes of getting funds into students’ hands as soon as they can to help with their immediate needs due to the coronavirus.

Clifford said seniors who had to leave campus will be refunded for housing and meal plans. For the majority of students, a credit will be applied for future dining and housing when they hopefully, eventually return to campus.

At least part of the other half, the institutional recovery funds, will be used to offset the distance learning fee that is charged for online courses. The school has also lost money due to study abroad cancellations and income from softball and baseball season.

“As far as tuition, classes continued, so there were no refunds for coursework or fees,” Clifford said. Students have continued their education through the turbulent changes, with many hoping to still graduate on time.

Speaking of losses, Clifford said, “The biggest one is the loss of graduation. We’ve felt that personally and feel so much empathy for students that aren’t getting to walk in a normal ceremony.” The school is devising alternate celebrations, like having students submit photos to be featured in some way.

Beyond this semester’s losses, the school is forecasting a negative trend in terms of higher education enrollment overall. Clifford said that those losses are not going to be covered by the $900,000 that the institution has from the federal government.

“We’re part of the Texas State University System and all the institutions are expecting impact from this. Enrollment, and possible state appropriation impact. The state is going to be looking at its resources,” he said. “Given what’s happened with oil too and a slowdown of the economy as we’ve shut down, it’s certainly not going to be helping our state funding.”

Higher education institutions in Texas are waiting on word from the state about when and how to safely reopen campuses. “We miss everyone and can’t wait to get back to normal operations. It’ll probably be a phased opening over time as things ease up and we can do it safely with everyone’s best interest in mind.”

In the meantime, the university announced a new relief fund to assist students who are currently struggling financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students who have lost work during the outbreak are eligible for the funding, which can be used to purchase basic necessities.

The funds cover essential items like toilet paper, soap, food, meals for students staying in the dorms and apartments, personal protective equipment for those who need to leave their dorms and other items that may be necessary to complete the semester.

Lack of transportation has been problematic for some remaining students who may need help getting home at the end of the semester, and Kara O’Shaughnessy, director of Advancement and Donor Relations said monies raised from the fund will help alleviate some of those issues.

“They’re not able to get essential items in town or go home with the travel restrictions in place throughout the U.S.,” she said. “That’s where the fund can play a huge role in making sure these students won’t lack the basic living items and they will still be able to concentrate on their studies.”

“The Sul Ross Relief Fund is one way that we can help address their immediate needs,” said Dr. Yvonne Realivasquez, assistant vice president for Administration and Development. “Your gift will help Sul Ross students finish the semester and show them how much we all care about their success.” Currently, the university has $5,000 in matching funds.

For more information or to make a donation to the Sul Ross Relief Fund, visit https://secure.touchnet.com/C20202_ustores/web/product_detail.jsp?PRODUCTID=753.