Legislative Watchdog Gives Oklahoma Higher Ed High Marks On Coronavirus Relief Spending

Apr 2, 2021

Credit Oklahoma State University

A legislative watchdog presented lawmakers with a positive review of how state colleges and universities spent federal coronavirus relief funds.

Institutions of higher education received direct allocations from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, a component of 2020’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act package. Oklahoma got a total of $180.5 million.

At least half the money must be spent on direct aid to students, otherwise the federal government can take back funds. Zach Sumner with the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency told lawmakers on Thursday any recoupment is unlikely.

"As of Feb. 28, 2021, 58% has been allocated directly to students. LOFT concludes there’s little risk to the state of failing to meet the HEERF requirement that 50% of funds are used for direct student aid," Sumner said.

In July 2020, 64 cents of every dollar went directly to student aid, and 22 cents went to disbursements like refunds. Over the months, institutions have started spending more in other areas, like supplies and operating expenses. Some funds started going toward research projects in January.

LOFT Executive Director Mike Jackson told lawmakers institutions also follow rigorous reporting standards.

"The legislature may consider requiring state government entities receiving future federal relief funds to adopt practices utilized by institutions of higher education to ensure compliance and minimize risk," Jackson said.

LOFT reported Oklahoma's HEERF allocation has $66.7 million remaining. Institutions have spent $122 million in federal virus relief funds so far, including $8.8 million that came from legislation enacted in December 2020.

Colleges and universities are intimately familiar with federal standards. According to the LOFT report, government grants and contracts account for more of their funding than state appropriations or tuition and fees.