More students graduated from Cal State Long Beach last year than any year before—despite the fact that those students’ academic careers were interrupted by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

So: How did CSULB achieve that?

There are plenty of contributing factors, but the university’s chief financial officer Scott Apel told me the financial support that Cal State Long Beach received from the government—about $239 million from the federal Higher Educational Emergency Relief Fund—was one of the most important.

“As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “this was a very successful program.”

As for how the money was spent, about half of it—$120 million—was earmarked for direct aid to students. Beyond that, Apel told me, there was little direction initially on how to distribute it, so CSULB came up with its own formula.

“Nobody knew what to do, so we gave a little bit of money to everybody who was eligible,” he said, “using a sliding scale based on [information from students’ Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms], with an eye toward giving neediest students the most.”

And “everybody who was eligible” essentially meant all students. While the first round of funding, issued during the Trump Administration, excluded international and undocumented students, CSULB used foundation and other funding to ensure those students would also receive direct aid. The Biden Administration later expanded eligibility to include all students.

“The people that were not eligible at first—it wasn’t based on financial need,” Apel said. “Those kids didn’t have less need. They were just kind of disallowed based on the governmental perception of their status.”

While the amount of funding each student got varied based on need, Apel said, “in totality, everybody got something.”

The other half of the money, just under $119 million, was intended for CSULB to spend and recoup lost revenue rather than to redistribute to students. But direction from the government on this front was similarly lacking, Apel said.

“Nobody knew what was going on,” he said. “The government didn’t really provide much in the way of guidance. We obviously expected there to be some audits and things later, so we figured that we wanted to be kind of restrictive in what we spent it on.”

So a small group of people within the university—Apel, the provost, the Academic Senate and some student leaders on campus—worked together to figure out what that should look like.

Two years after the first round of HEERF money was distributed, that group’s work has led to the allocation of:

  • $34.7 million for technology to facilitate online teaching and learning;
  • $29.8 million to replace lost revenue, which was largely the result of the state budget reduction;
  • $22.4 million for faculty and staff support, which included workshops and other measures to ease the transition to online learning;
  • $10.2 million for student support services, including programs to help with mental health and other basic needs;
  • $9.9 million for indirect cost recovery, which is a standard use for grant money that’s meant to reimburse the university for the expenses it incurs in the process of administering the funding;
  • $8.5 million for health and safety, including new HVAC and filtration upgrades, enhanced cleaning protocols and personal protective equipment; and
  • $3.2 million for COVID testing and vaccine delivery.

When looking at the biggest chunk of money, which went to technology, I asked Apel whether that spending was essentially a one-off or if it represented a longer-term investment in how CSULB approaches technology. His answer: “It’s both.”

As an example of the one-time costs, Apel pointed to CSULB’s purchase and maintenance of WiFi hotspots for students who didn’t have regular access to the internet off-campus. The university is charged a monthly fee for keeping those devices active, which comes out to about $100,000, he said.

That cost was necessary amid stay-at-home orders, but the CSULB campus is again open for students who need internet access, so it doesn’t make sense to keep spending that extra money.

But, Apel said, other investments in technology that make more sense to maintain in the long-term—like offering WiFi outside CSULB buildings or in parking structures—are here to stay.

Apel also said a new investment in outdoor classrooms will outlive this particular pandemic.

“Not that we’re anticipating other pandemics,” he clarified, “but it creates a wonderful new space that we don’t normally have for students and faculty. Clubs can use them, and the community can use them, as well.”

Overall, Apel said, there’s no question that the HEERF money helped CSULB survive what could have been a devastating hit.

“We kept the place running,” he said.

Pointing to the record number of graduates—which hit a new high of 10,593 for the 2020-21 school year, and current estimates place above 11,000 for 2021-22—Apel said the funding’s success speaks for itself.

“Those students were smack in the middle of a pandemic,” he said of the graduates. “There’s not a doubt in mind that that would not have happened without this help from the federal government.”

“It was desperately needed,” he added, “and it came at just the right time.”

Hayley Munguia is editor of the Long Beach Business Journal.