In the wake of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) era, federal emergency funds for higher education has concluded, but its impact endures on campuses across the country, as demonstrated in a recent Washington Post article. Connecticut State Colleges and Universities serve as a prime example, having used HEERF to expand access to much-needed 24/7 mental health services through TimelyCare for students at all 12 of its community colleges. The system transitioned to institutional funds when the federal emergency funding was no longer available, to ensure that crucial support persisted.
John Maduko, M.D., President of Connecticut State Community College, emphasizes the significance of this investment, stating, “It was a no-brainer to make that institutional investment. The numbers speak for themselves. The mental health challenges and insecurities had already existed. COVID-19 exacerbated them but also forced higher education, higher education leaders, and practitioners to pay closer attention. We cannot simply ignore what our students are facing.”
Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or, CARES Act HEERF funds helped many colleges and universities subsidize the cost of bringing additional mental health support to students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, institutions have spent nearly all those funds that became available in 2021. Yet many programs launched with help from this pandemic relief money were so successful that they have become critical to campus communities. Institutions now grapple with the challenge of how to sustain these critical services post-HEERF.
Recently, TimelyCare’s Chief Strategy Officer, Becky Laman, moderated an engaging discussion at the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) Leadership Congress about how community colleges are finding the resources to support 24/7 care for students. The panel, titled “Funding Strategies to Provide Sustainable Mental Health and Basic Needs Support in a Post-HEERF World,” explored the journeys of administrators, trustees, and legislators at three different school systems. These stories offer insight into overcoming various challenges to secure ongoing funding for equitable mental health resources for their students.
The panelists were Ryan Balber, Director, Virginia Higher Education Procurement Consortium, James (JW) Kelley, Associate Vice President, Student Services at North Carolina Community College System, and Jennifer Keiper, Senior Director of CollegeBuys at the Foundation for California Community Colleges (FoundationCCC). They discussed how their respective systems have secured funding to continue to support virtual mental health care.
Advocacy for mental health support
Knowing the severity and the impact of the mental health crisis, Laman asked panelists how they gained advocacy and stakeholders, given so many competing priorities.
In Virginia, a consortium created nine years ago by vice presidents of finance interested in cooperative purchasing, partnered with TimelyCare to address post-pandemic needs. Balber said, “The greatest thing about this project is it didn’t come from procurement. It came from student services aware of the need after the pandemic.”
He noted that Virginia’s 23 community college presidents met with the chancellor and requested funding, “They made sure they involved everyone in the process, and it started at the highest level at institutions with the same need at the same time.” In partnership with several public four-year universities across the state, “collaboratively, we were able to satisfy that need.”
Keiper discussed how in California the need for student access to virtual care was exacerbated by the pandemic so FoundationCCC prioritized the search for a solution. “We developed criteria specifically tailored to higher education, focusing on HIPAA, FERPA, and Section 508 compliance; we wanted to make sure there was 24/7 access because students need help at night and on weekends, and we didn’t want to charge the students.” She said after a thorough vetting process, “TimelyCare became the clear leader” and was awarded the contract for service.
In North Carolina, Kelley stressed creating a sense of urgency and making compelling arguments for next steps. He shared how the community colleges’ student government association did a statewide survey of students and identified mental and physical health support as a pressing need. While the state board was going through a strategic planning process, “holistically meeting the needs of student mental and physical wellness” rose to become an immediate action item.
Fund Your Virtual Health Care Program
Continued funding for mental health support
Laman pointed out that incorporating funds from federal, state, and system levels is “both an art and a science.” Many TimelyCare partners use combined funding sources and take advantage of cooperative purchasing agreements. In fact, TimelyCare helps provide guidance on specific resources that may be available.
Balber highlighted that getting top-down support can help initiatives move faster and recommended that group purchasing agreements include, “flexibility for each school to have scalable and customizable programs.”
Reporting a return on investment in mental health and wellness was also identified as an important factor in securing ongoing financial support. According to Jennifer Keiper, “Data is key when asking for continued funding.”
“The storytelling piece is critical as well, so include student testimonials and build case studies.”
Kelley said there’s an interest in utilization, students’ persistence, retention, and completion rates. However, he stressed the importance of going beyond mere numbers and capturing the qualitative aspects in return on investment reporting. This qualitative dimension contributes to fostering a culture of caring across campuses. He noted that utilization alone can’t measure an “expected benefit” and pointed out that many employers provide health and dental insurance support for employees, but don’t expect 100% to have appointments every day.
When considering whether to limit access to virtual care for part-time students, the panel strongly advocated for equitable access for all students. Kelly and Keiper explained how many community college students are in part-time programs for workforce development, technical skills certification, dual enrollment, or high school equivalency completion. They emphasized that mental health affects every aspect of a student’s experience, and no one should be excluded. Delaying support hampers students’ well-being.
Kelley’s message to community college leaders is one of perseverance. “Don’t give up on securing the necessary funding for student mental health and wellness.” His advice is simple: if Plan A doesn’t work, go to Plan B, and even Plan C if necessary.
TimelyCare can help identify funding options for virtual health and wellness programs for college students and provide guidance on how to evaluate the effectiveness of existing programs. Contact TimelyCare to learn more.