Administrators across the country say that federal Covid relief funding has been essential to enticing students to stay in college or re-enroll after a break.

Institutions have used the money for everything from clearing small debts like library fines and parking tickets to offsetting the cost of child care. Some students who’ve been struggling because of Covid are getting what amounts to free tuition.

Long Beach City College is using the money to offer “student success completion grants.” Say there’s a student who took a full load of courses one semester, but planned to drop out or go part-time to pick up extra hours at work. LBCC will offer financial aid — up to $2,000 a semester for students who take 15 units — to encourage them to persist and graduate on time. LBCC is also providing child-care grants to its large population of student parents.

The college has streamlined its process for requesting emergency aid, providing students with an easy link to the application in Canvas, the college’s course-management system. Students can specify what they need help with, whether it’s mental-health services, tech support, or transportation. While enrollment was down last fall, it was a much smaller decrease than other two-year institutions in the region, Muñoz says.

But after September 2023, relief money will no longer be available. What will colleges do then?

“Here we are, sitting in early 2022, and those funds are just about exhausted,” says Renay Scott, acting provost and vice president for student success at New Mexico State University, where half of the students are Hispanic.

“I sometimes feel like we’re paddling just to stay afloat,” Scott says, “versus paddling to get somewhere.”