College students can tap into $36B in emergency funds from Department of Education

The U.S. Department of Education announced on Tuesday that it is offering more than $36 billion in emergency grants provided by the American Rescue Plan to educational institutions negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The agency said the grants will help more than 5,000 higher education institutions, including Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU), Tribal Colleges & Universities (TCU) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI). 

Under the newly released grants, millions of students will have access to emergency funds to ensure they may continue to be educated during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

"These funds are critical to ensuring that all of our nation’s students – particularly those disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic – have the opportunity to enroll, continue their education, graduate, and pursue their careers," said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. "With this action, thousands of institutions will be able to provide direct relief to students who need it most, so we can make sure that we not only recover from the pandemic, but also build back even stronger than before."

Some examples of how the grants are being used were released by the Department of Education. 

Foothills-De Anza Community College in California used the funds to establish a Mental Wellness Ambassador program aimed at providing more accessible mental health services for students. Blackfeet Community College in Montana used funds to purchase hundreds of laptops and create a program to loan the computers out to students who need them for their studies. 

The Department of Education also said schools may use the grants to cover a variety of other "institutional costs," including supplementing lost revenue due to the pandemic, staff training, payroll, technology costs and more. 

The aid is part of Biden's larger $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, called the American Rescue Plan, that became law in March.

The historic legislation also contains $350 billion of flexible aid for state and local governments, plus billions of dollars more for specific programs such as housing assistance. Unlike earlier coronavirus aid, states have broad leeway to use the money to plug budget holes, invest in certain infrastructure or address the "negative economic impacts" of the pandemic.

States are expected to receive an initial installment soon, with a second round coming a year later.

State governors like Vermont Gov. Phil Scott hadn't accounted for a new influx of federal money when presenting a budget plan earlier this year. Now he's working with lawmakers to add it to the state's spending plan while still awaiting guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department on specific ways the money can — or can't — be used.

"A billion dollars has just fallen from the sky, in some respects," Scott, a Republican. "It’s here, right in front of us. We have to invest it wisely."

In other states, the spending plans include bonuses for teachers and first-responders; aid to movie theaters and entertainment venues; construction at parks and public facilities; and grants to farmers, commercial fishing operations and food processors.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.