GEER funding helps NIU meet critical student needs

Northern Illinois University’s long-time commitment to meeting the needs of our most vulnerable students has helped the university secure nearly $3.5 million in funding through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund.

The funding was part of a $108 million federal relief package provided to the state as part of the CARES ACT. Of that amount, Governor Pritzker allocated $48 million to support higher education. Among the 12 state universities, NIU has been the second most successful in securing those funds.

“I think there are three reasons for that,” said Provost Beth Ingram. “First, when applying for these grants, we were asked to demonstrate how we would use the funding to achieve the goals of recruiting and retaining students-of-color, first-generation students, rural students and Pell-eligible students. Historically, we have enrolled large numbers of those students and have demonstrated our ability to meet their needs. Both of those things worked in our favor. Finally, we backed up our requests with data demonstrating that we would use that money effectively.”

The GEER funds were available in two phases.

In the first phase, all twelve public universities in Illinois were invited to submit applications for funding to support efforts to enroll and retain low-income, unrepresented and first-generation students. Each school received money, with grants ranging from just over $7 million for the University of Illinois Chicago to $465,000 for the University of Illinois at Springfield. The NIU proposal, written by the Division of Finance and Facilities, netted a grant of $2.945 million, which was the second-largest awarded.

NIU is using that money to fund several key initiatives, including:

  • $1.5 million to remove financial hurdles that could have prevented up to 1,000 students from re-enrolling.
  • Reimbursement of $446,000 for technological upgrades that make providing remote learning easier and more robust.
  • Reimbursement of $410,000 for the installation of specialized PPE filters across campus

“This funding was critical to our ability to cover the cost of quickly transitioning our course delivery system to all remote learning in the spring, and helped ensure safer air quality of campus,” said Vice President for Administration and Finance Sarah Chinniah. “Most importantly though, it helped eliminate financial hurdles that could have kept many of our students from pursuing and earning a college degree, so we were delighted to receive this money.”

For the second round of funding through GEER, universities were invited to apply for a portion of a $3 million pool of funding, with a maximum possible award of $500,000. In that round, only nine schools received funding, with NIU one of three schools receiving a top-end allocation of $456,286. That grant was spearheaded by the Provost’s Office.

That money will be used for:

  • Up to 430 grants of $200 apiece to assist students who lack adequate home internet
  • Up to 250 grants of $400 per week to assist qualifying students who may lose income due to the need to quarantine because of a COVID-19. The money is intended to cover housing, childcare, transportation for testing and treatment, food and other necessities.
  • $31,500 to mitigate the cost to students for like testing required before moving into residence halls.
  • Purchase of 215 laptops to be added to the 100 already in the Founders Memorial Library lending program
  • Creation of a Peer Mentor Support program that will employ 25 undergraduate peer mentors, each of whom will work up to 20 hours per week, to support the academic needs of students struggling with courses that provide a foundation for advanced coursework.

The provost said she was particularly excited to receive funding that will allow students to address technological needs, especially internet access. “Last spring, we heard from many students who were struggling with that, sometimes driving to parking lots to do their schoolwork. This will make their lives immeasurably better.”

Similarly, she considers the money that pays for testing and lost income due to the CORONA virus to be vital. “We want to support students who are protecting their own health and the health of others when they follow public health directives to quarantine or isolate,” Ingram said. “We want to alleviate the anxiety caused when a student loses wages and has to choose between, say, buying groceries, caring for a child, or paying a bill.”

Some of the initiatives were designed to have dual impacts. For instance, the peer mentor program not only assists students who are struggling academically but also creates badly needed jobs for 25 peer mentors.

Another example of a strategic approach to the funding was the request for 215 laptops for the Founders Memorial Library loaner program. “Each of these laptops will provide us the opportunity to help multiple students. Once a student no longer needs the computer, it can be redeployed to another, helping each meet an important need,” Ingram said.

While some of the funding priorities stick out for various reasons, Ingram said that the university is grateful for all of the support.

“NIU has made a commitment to its students and has pursued every avenue open to us to meet student needs during this crisis,” she said. “We are grateful for the state funding that allowed us to support our students and to help them find success.”

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