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Sac State uses federal COVID relief funds to relieve student debt

Sacramento State in the past year has distributed more than $1.8 million from Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund monies to nearly 1,400 students. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Using federal funds tied to COVID-19 relief efforts, Sacramento State is clearing debt for hundreds of students to help them stay in school and earn their degrees.

Since fall 2020, the University has distributed more than $1.8 million from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, or HEERF, to nearly 1,400 students to cancel unpaid fees accrued during the pandemic.

Sacramento State has received $105 million in the third round of the federal fund’s distribution, more than $52 million of which will provide direct financial support to students. The other half will fund University operations, including Sac State’s vaccine clinic and training faculty members to navigate the pivot to online teaching.

Recently, the University joined a growing number of colleges across the country in using some of the HEERF funds earmarked for institutional use to clear student debt. The federal government has endorsed the approach.

Many financially challenged students burdened by institutional debt leave college, and some never return, administrators said. The lingering debt, ranging from a few dollars to thousands, ultimately “can affect their credit and hurt them financially,” said Gina Curry, Sac State’s associate vice president for Financial Services. “We’re taking that debt away, clearing a pathway for them to attend school.”

Unpaid registration fees account for most student debt, according to the University Bursar’s office. Housing fees and bookstore loans are among the other debts that students accrue.

Forgiving student debt is one of many ways that Sac State is reducing barriers to student success during a difficult time, Curry noted. Other efforts include providing laptops to help bridge the digital divide, and offering emergency grants to help pay for food, medical care, and other concerns made worse by the pandemic.

Danielle Muñoz, interim director of Sac State’s CARES office, said the economic fallout from COVID-19 has been devastating for students who lost jobs when restaurants and other businesses shut down during the peak of the pandemic. Many have subsequently been unable to find steady employment, she said.  

“Many of our students rely on jobs and financial aid to pay their way through school, so COVID created an unfortunate situation for students in need and left many of them with unpaid debt,” Muñoz said.

“Thanks to this federal aid, we were able to help hundreds of students who experienced a COVID-related crisis,” she said. “This funding has allowed them to stay on track towards their degree, lift holds to register for classes, and prevented student debts from going to collections.”

The efforts reflect Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen’s “student-centric” governance, said Curry.

“The President and his administration are all about students, through and through,” she said. “They are 100% committed to helping those who are struggling.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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