For the third time in 18 months, Missouri Western State University students will get help in paying the costs of being in college, as the university seeks command of its own finances.

This has been a monthslong process, and the usage of federal aid to keep heads above water during troubled times takes just as much work. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act of spring 2020 is fully distributed by now. Missouri Western and institutions like it throughout the country are wrapping up their usage of “CARES Act 2.0,” the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which then-President Donald Trump signed into law last December.

Roughly $11.6 million more comes now via the American Rescue Plan, signed by President Joe Biden in March. It empowers the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). Missouri Western students will receive, based on individual proportionate need, a share of about $5.8 million. The campus as a whole gets slightly less, which can be applied to several projects, as long as the expense is related to healing COVID-19 harms.

“We’ll distribute the money and keep records of where it went,” said Missouri Western Vice President Darrell Morrison, the university’s chief financial officer, in a presentation to the Board of Governors. “We’ll then be audited and have to show, ‘Did (given student) get $50? Yes, he did, here’s the receipts.’”

University officials are of two minds in processing such payouts. In one sense, over the last two years, Western has hardly been inclined to say “no” to any windfall cash. And yet, as Morrison repeatedly emphasized, single payments — however useful to students and the institution — offer no means of future stability.

“I think it assisted us a lot. I don’t think we should be betting on the federal government to do anything for us other than what we do ourselves,” said Al Landes, who helms the Board of Governors’ finance committee.

Even recurring aid from the Missouri state government, which rose from just under $18.78 million in Fiscal Year 2020 to a forecast $21.58 million for FY 2022, is not going to allow Western to consign the trials of 2020 to history.

To do that, Western will need to expand its bread-and-butter revenues: tuition, fees, on-campus housing and food services. The problem is that FY 2022 is forecast to produce a little less than $30.95 million in tuition and fees, down from the FY 2020 mark of $37.13 million, a decrease of about 16.6%. To help cope with this, Western has winnowed total expenses from $72.1 million in FY 2020 to a projected $68.35 million for FY 2022.

It will need to do that a little more.

“We are gaining on the expense side and the operating budget,” Board of Governors Chairman Rick Ebersold said. “The enrollment still needs improvement. It is improving, and we think that’ll take another year or two to get into balance.”

Shots in arms, so to speak

On Thursday, amid an on-campus COVID-19 vaccination clinic that enlisted the aid of the Kansas City Chiefs in encouraging Griffons to get immunized, Morrison laid out for Landes’ committee how differing interests will qualify for federal aid.

For the students, step one is to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. In visiting, each student can determine eligibility first for no-cost aid programs, such as the Pell Grant, and now, American Rescue Plan dollars. This is also the portal to qualifying for Stafford loans, which is U.S. Department of Education money that must eventually be paid back.

Missouri Western senior Arnold Crayton is accustomed by now to this system, having used it twice before to get COVID-19 relief money and some Pell Grant funds before that. A member of the Griffon football program, he said he is determined to secure his future with this aid, along with various scholarships, as much as he can without relying on loans.

“When the whole pandemic was happening, obviously jobs were kind of restricted in ways,” Crayton said. “I was a (restaurant) server at the time, so I wasn’t able to work. The federal aid kicked in right on time because, I mean, I live off campus. It benefited me in being able to pay for bills, to pay rent, for other necessities. It was essential.”

This is the essence of what Rescue Plan dollars are supposed to do: Make sure people don’t crash out of their jobs, studies and dreams because of COVID-19 economic harms. The next step comes at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 19, at Blum Union 220 on campus. The Board of Governors knows how students will get their money. It soon will decide how to divide the university’s “institutional” pie in a way that promotes continued recovery.

“It does look like things are returning to somewhat normal,” Ebersold said. “The financial situation of the college is still in question. However, it’s much improved from what it was two years ago, and from a year ago. We feel like it’s headed in the right direction.”

By Harry