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INDIANAPOLIS — It is not easy or cheap to be a college student.

Take Celia Ward and Marisa Wilson for example. Both are elementary education majors at the University of Indianapolis. They are full-time students with two part-time jobs each and substantial student loan debt.

“I probably have $50,000 worth of loans right now,” said Ward.

Wilson chimed in, “I have about $20,000 in loans.” 

But then in January, every student at UIndy received an email from Kori Vitangeli, Vice President for Student Affairs. The message announced the availability of “limited financial relief funds available for undergraduate and graduate students who have been negatively impacted by the Coronavirus.”

The available money was part of the federal government’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF). Starting in 2020, three separate COVID relief bills provided collectively $76.2 billion to colleges, universities, and trade schools across the country.

In Indiana, $1.3 billion was given to educational institutions here. Accepting HEERF money came with some strings attached. There were specific dollar amounts schools were required to share with students.

For UIndy, the total federal emergency aid available to students was more than $11.8 million. Ward and Wilson both applied, but neither was approved for a grant.

“It just kinda felt like they just took that all money for themselves,” said Wilson.

What both students noticed, was that a larger chunk of federal relief money was spent by the university. These are ‘institutional funds’. For UIndy, it amounted to $14.7 million, and the university could have converted this money into additional grants for students.

In fact, a spokesperson for the US Department of Education tells CBS4, “(Schools were) strongly encouraged… to use their institutional funds toward additional (student) aid.”

Now, UIndy did use its HEERF funds for a number of logical COVID-related expenses. $700,000 was used to scale-up remote learning capability. Another $780,000 was spent on emergency housing for students. $1 million went for COVID tests, contact tracing and other virus protection measures.

But the biggest chunk of UIndy’s institutional HEERF funds went to pay itself. A whopping $9.4 million went straight into the university’s coffers for “replacing lost revenue” when its students opted out of classes, housing contracts and meal plans because of the pandemic. It was a way for UIndy to collect money for services it did not provide.

A UIndy spokesman notes the school added $500,000 to the money it distributed to students in the form of emergency grants, but it was not disclosed where this money came from.

CBS4 wants to make two important points here. What UIndy did was perfectly legal according to the rules for the use of HEERF money. And other Indiana schools did similar things.

Purdue University deposited $8.7 million of its HEERF funds to cover the cost of the reimbursements it paid to students. Ball State University did the same thing to the tune of $8.5 million. Indiana University used the federal funds to offset $14.1 million in “lost state appropriations”.

Now, the online university Purdue Global broke from this practice by distributing to its students over half of the HEERF funds it received, almost $25 million in total.

But, CBS4 found that just one Indiana school gave its students the lion’s share of all HEERF dollars: Ivy Tech Community College.

The school is the largest community college in the county with some 170,000 students spread across its 19 campuses.

Ivy Tech CFO Dominick Chase explained, “We immediately went to work trying to determine how we could get this (HEERF) money to students because we knew they were in tremendous need.”

Student Tracy Garrett is just one of 71,000 Ivy Tech students who got an emergency grant. After years of working in education, she decided to get a degree and became a full-time student. But in January, Garrett was having a tough time paying her bills. Ivy Tech quickly arranged a $500 emergency grant.

Garrett said, “Without that money things probably would have gotten turned off.”

The minimum amount of federal relief dollars Ivy Tech was required to share with students was $111 million. But officials added to that $27 million in its institutional funds for a total of $138-million or just over half of its HEERF total.

But Ivy Tech did not stop there.

Another $1.4 million of federals funds was spent on a laptop loaner program.

“We did not turn any student away. We had to go back and buy more laptops,” said Chase.

And if internet access was an issue for a student, Ivy Tech gave them a Mi-Fi device which cost the school another $86,000.

One big educational obstacle during the pandemic was books and other course materials needed for classes. Officials at Ivy Tech discovered 65% of its students were not buying the books. So, this year and continuing next year, all course materials for students are free, costing the school $23.4 million.

Also, $500,000 was put into a remote tutoring program to help students who may be struggling.

Add it all up, more than 60% of all HEERF dollars received by Ivy Tech was used to directly benefit students. It is, by far, the most dedicated, student-oriented spending of pandemic relief funds by an Indiana school that CBS4 could find.

Chase explained, “We were really focused on our guiding principle of, ‘Let’s help students out as much as possible’.”

If you are wondering how other Indiana colleges and universities did divvying up their HEERF funds, below you will find a spreadsheet with details in the 48 Hoosier schools that got the most pandemic relief funds.

Spreadsheet Notes

  • * Did not supply total number of students receiving emergency grants.
  • *1 Spokesman Dennis Brown explains, “Notre Dame did not apply for or receive funds because we believed other schools or organizations may have a greater need for such aid.
  • *2 Did not supply complete data on emergency grants to students.
  • *3 Non-responsive to requests for complete data on emergency grants to students.
  • *4 When CBS4 requested data Senior Director for Content and Communication wrote, “We are unable to provide any information beyond what is on the (university) webpage.” Data on the site was incomplete.
  • *5 Not responsive to requests for data. Information on college website is incomplete.
  • *6 President Dr. Rebecca Stoltzfus referred CBS4 to a page from the college website, but information was incomplete.