Episode 43: COVID-19 Relief Dollars at Work: East Carolina University and the Greenville Community


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Aired May 20, 2021

The Department of Education recently released the latest round of emergency funds provided by what will likely be the final COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan. Our guest this week is Philip Rogers, chancellor of East Carolina University (ECU) and former ACE senior vice president, who talks about how ECU has used federal pandemic relief to help students and the university at large, along with the surrounding community of Greenville.

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

East Carolina University CARES Act Funding

East Carolina Coronavirus News and Updates

East Carolina University Student Emergency Funding

U.S. Department of Education Makes Available $36 Billion in American Rescue Plan Funds to Support Students and Institutions
Department of Education | May 11, 2021

Biden Ends Trump Ban on Pandemic Aid for Undocumented College Students
Politico | May 11, 2021

Eligibility To Receive Emergency Financial Aid Grants to Students Under the Higher Education Emergency Relief Programs
Federal Register | May 14, 2021

Nearly $40 Billion in Relief for Higher Education in Sight as Congress Nears Completion on COVID-19 Bill (March 8, 2021)

Higher Education Receives More Than $20 Billion in COVID-19 Relief Funding (Dec. 21, 2020)

Coronavirus Stimulus Bill Allocates $14 Billion to Higher Education; Higher Education Community Says More Is Needed (March 30, 2020)

From the Introduction

Public Generally Supports International Students Despite Security and Competition Concerns, ACE Survey Finds

College and University Presidents Respond to COVID-19: 2021 Spring Term Survey, Part II

Hosts and Guests

 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: Hello, and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. I'm your host, Jon Fansmith, and I'm joined as always by my illustrious co-hosts, Sarah Spreitzer and Mushtaq Gunja. Hey, guys.

Sarah Spreitzer: Hey, how's it going?

Jon Fansmith: Good.

Mushtaq Gunja: Hi, Sarah, hi, Jon.

Jon Fansmith: Mushtaq and Sarah but not me, will be joined a little bit later in the show by the current Chancellor of the East Carolina University, a former Senior Vice President and colleague here at ACE and a perpetually tall and charming man, Philip Rogers. So that will be a good conversation. I unfortunately was not part of it, maybe that accounts for why it will be a good conversation, but so that's something obviously for listeners to look forward to. But before we get to Philip, how are you guys doing? What's going on?

Mushtaq Gunja: Busy, busy time in higher ed these days.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, really, really busy. Mostly seemingly... I don't know, I keep thinking it's going to slow down at some point. I know Jon, you've been dealing with the last COVID bill that was just passed. They're trying to get the money out the door.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, and Mushtaq, you should know, Sarah and I generally start our days by texting each other about who has the worst day. Usually, we're actually able to guess with some accuracy, mostly it's been her recently, I think. I generally have good news and in fact, Sarah brought up some of the good news, which is that the last round of funding, what is likely to be the last round of funding, never let hope die, but has been released by the Department of Education. The biggest pool of that, there's four pools, but the big pool, about 36 billion for all nonprofit institutions and their students was released. That's good news in it of itself, but I think probably the really big news, the things we're most happy about. It's the fact that as part of that release, the department said that institutions have the authority to award the student aid to whichever their students have need. That includes undocumented students, that includes international students, that includes all these other categories of students who for one reason or the other fell through the cracks in the previous two rounds.

What's more, any money leftover from the previous two rounds falls under this guidance. So schools now have a lot of latitude to reach out and helps students who frankly, we know had a lot of need who could've used assistance earlier. I think that is tremendous news, we are very happy. Institutions, as soon as that was made public last Tuesday as we recorded this, a universal outpouring of support. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that. When the very first relief bill, the CARES Act was passed at the end of March 2020, we thought, Congress thought that this would be the rules going forward, that students meant a student, a person who attended your institution. It was not to be and unfortunately took over a year to get that corrected, but it is now corrected and I think we're just very, very excited about the possibilities this opens, and certainly allows institutions to do what they'd always hoped to do all along and finally addresses what I think was a flaw in the system so far, but. Anyway, very positive news.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, I know many institutions were waiting for that guidance because we'd been hearing that that was the intention of the department and that they were trying to make it workable. So yeah, it was great, it was really great news for our students and for our institutions.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, and I'll say it was... I mean, probably not a surprise to listeners, but there aren't a whole lot of big surprises in our world generally. Usually when something is formally announced, people have already been talking about it for a few days. This was the exception to the rule. Really, even in the week before the announcement by ED, we were telling institutions what ED was telling us, don't wait for new guidance that might change this. It may not come, we're not sure, we don't know. So it really was, as soon as we found out, it was a true surprise. So, every once in a while you get happy surprises in our world. Maybe not the case for you though, Sarah, right? Your life has been full of surprises but I wouldn't characterize them as happy ones.

Sarah Spreitzer: I don't know, I think that the last two or three weeks. I don't know if it's been as surprising as we've seen. This really large piece of legislation called the Endless Frontier Act advanced its way to the Senate floor. Really, the underlying bill is the reauthorization of the National Science Foundation which funds fundamental research at many of our campuses. It would increase the authorization levels by I think it's $45 billion, create a new directorate that's focused on technology and innovation. Really, trying to get at out-competing with other foreign governments that are making huge investments in R&D, specifically China. But as part of that, there's a lot of other provisions being folded into the bill that are trying to address foreign influence and transparency around foreign funding to US institutions of higher education. Really, it's advancing so quickly. There have been things added to the bill that I think we've had only a few days to react to. There are some things that we knew were going to be incorporated into the bill that we worked on very hard and we actually saw some improvements.

So, Senator Portman has long been talking about the threat of foreign influence on college campuses. He had a bill called the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, it's been around since I think 2019. We worked very hard with the staff and I think it's in a much better place than it was when it was first introduced. Senator Portman talked a lot about wanting to work with the stakeholders, so there's some new visa provisions in there that have been largely fixed, new requirements for J1 sponsors that really get towards the national security concerns that the Senator had. But there's other things in the bill. A new expansion of Section 117, which is foreign gift reporting under the Higher Education Act. Really, the lowering of the threat, the reporting threshold from $250,000 to any gift or contract over $50,000. A brand new provision called Section 124, which would require campuses to maintain searchable databases of any foreign gifts or contracts individual faculty or senior staff. I think that's going to be really problematic for our campuses. A lot of this was done without formal hearings or markups, and so we're just seeing this as the bill advances. The bill itself, I just saw the total text yesterday, it was over 1,400 pages. There's a lot in there.

Jon Fansmith: You just saw it yesterday so you've already memorized it, right?

Sarah Spreitzer: Oh yeah, completely, completely. Of course, a few provisions on our favorite topic, Confucius Institutes, so there's just a lot of stuff in there. We know that the bill is likely going to advance through the Senate, there will be a lot of amendments considered over the next couple weeks as they're considering the bill. Then we're going to have to turn to see what the House is going to do on it.

Mushtaq Gunja: Sarah, does the House have their own version of this or are they really going to take up the Senate version?

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, so they have their own NSF reauthorization bill, I think it's called The Future of NSF, that's also looking at making historic increases to the foundation and creating a new directorate focused on technology and innovation. They haven't been considering those separate bills that we've seen rolled into the Endless Frontier Act.

Mushtaq Gunja: Well, lots going on there. One of the things that ties both of the two things that you've talked about together are international students, right?

Sarah Spreitzer: Yep.

Mushtaq Gunja: We have an international student survey that came out last week. Is that right, Sarah?

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, it was from survey data that we actually carried out in February of this year, but it builds off of surveys that we did in 2019 and 2020, actually before COVID. So this one is after COVID to see whether or not US attitudes towards international students had changed during or after the pandemic. I guess we can't really say that we're at the end of the pandemic but whatever this time is, looking to the 2021-2022 academic year. It was interesting, I don't think... the attitudes have pretty much stayed the same. The American public understands the importance of international students. They think that they're important to our academic and our research enterprises, and also important for our domestic students to have them on campus so that they get more of a global experience, but there's not a lot of support for growing the overall number of international students on the campuses. So, I thought that was a weird juxtaposition.

Obviously right now post COVID, we're looking at, we had historic drops last year due to the pandemic. Around a 43% drop in our new international student enrollment. So we're all watching the enrollment numbers to see if we're going to go back up to our regular levels for the 2021-2022 academic year.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, and speaking of enrollment numbers and speaking of surveys, ACE has our next Pulse Point survey that's coming out and next week too. Topping the list of most pressing concerns continues to be student mental health, but second, and this is not surprising given where we are in the admissions cycle, but enrollment concerns come up second for our precedence as we start thinking about the size and shape of our classes, and thinking about how to educate these students in a world in which the pandemic is not quite over yet.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, I had a call earlier today where we were talking about campuses returning to normal. I think it's too soon to say that there it's going to be completely back to normal. In the case of international students, we know that folks are going to have problems getting visas processed and getting here in time for the regular start dates in the fall. I don't think you can say that we're back to normal if we're missing some of our students. So, it's still going to look different.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, no question about it. The summer term is about to start and we know that the summer is in this weird position between the really tough spring that we had and what looks like it's going to be a better fall. So, we'll have to see what the next few weeks look like as students start to enroll in their summer classes.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, and hopefully we will see some of these enrollment numbers reverse direction from what we've seen over the last few semesters, but in terms of talking about turning that corner, it's a perfect segue into our next guest. We'll talk a little bit about how his institution is using federal relief money to help turn that corner and maybe not... whatever the new normal is, move towards that. So we will be right back, or at least Mushtaq and Sarah will be right back with Philip Rogers after the break.

Mushtaq Gunja: We're back and we are joined today by our good friend, Philip Rogers. Philip was previously the Senior Vice President of Learning and Engagement at the American Council on Education. He is now the Chancellor at East Carolina University, and he's held that position for, what is it Philip? Six weeks now?

Philip Rogers: We're on eight weeks. We're moving away from counting the days, now we're counting the weeks.

Mushtaq Gunja: Soon it'll be months, years, decades. Philip, I see a long future for you at East Carolina University.

Philip Rogers: Well, that's the goal, that's the goal. That was the long-term strategy is to come back home to a place that I love, a place that has given me so much of my life, having grown up in Greenville in this community where ECU is located. A lot of family back here, but also a lot of family up in D.C. at the American Council on Education. So this indeed is a special treat, to get to be on this side of the microphone today and reaching out to some old friends. So, thanks for having me back.

Mushtaq Gunja: Absolutely, so I'm certain that many of our listeners know who you are, but let me just do five seconds of introduction. So Philip, as he alluded to, worked at ACE for several years and was the former Senior Vice President of the Learning and Engagement Division. Previous to that, he spent quite a bit of time on campus at East Carolina University as the Chief of Staff, I think from 2006 to 2013. Is that right? So this really, truly is a homecoming, Philip.

Philip Rogers: It absolutely is a homecoming. It was really destiny that literally my first week on the job because of the pandemic, we moved homecoming to the spring. The theme for homecoming this year, unexpectedly was home sweet homecoming. So as I told the students, not only was it a homecoming for our students and for our faculty and staff and all of our alumni, it really was a personal homecoming for me. In a lot of ways, it was destiny to return back to ECU. I don't know if I have told you all this, but ECU's 114 years old and my great grandmother was one of the early graduates of East Carolina Teacher's Training School. My wife has two degrees from here, my mother, my father-in-law, so many other people. So, we're thrilled to be back. I grew up on this campus as a child, literally from Greenville. I like to think I'm a living example of what this institution and institutions like ECU can do for the people of its state that it serves each and every day. So, I'm here today personally and professionally because of this institution and also because of the American Council on Education. What a great place to get that big lens on higher education, and be able to take it and put it back on the ground and put what I've learned to work.

Mushtaq Gunja: So, speaking of putting things back to work. I mean, we wanted to bring in an institutional example of how some of the stimulus money that the government has given, CARES Act, HEROES Act funding, is actually being spent on campus. So we're going to talk about that in just a second if you don't mind, Philip, but I wanted to just ask you what it was like. So, eight weeks in, surprises, delights? How has this experience been?

Philip Rogers: Well, always surprises and always delights to be back on a college campus. I used to remember when I was at ACE, every now and then I would get out of One Dupont Circle and I'd walk down P Street into Georgetown and just take a walk around Georgetown's campus just to get that flare and that feel of the spirit of students and being back on a campus. Now I get to walk out this door behind me every day around this campus and get to feel the spirit of the students, the Pirate Nation in the air. I get to spend a lot of time engaging with members of the campus community. The weather is nice around here, so folks are out on the campus mall. I have had a lot of opportunities for interaction and engaging with folks. Let me give you just a quick preview of ECU because I think that'll help in context of who we are. We're about 29,000 students. 23,000 undergrads, 6,000 graduate students. About 11,000 of our students are fully online, so we have a good solid population of non face-to-face institutions. We have about 35% of our students are students of color, 80% receive some form of financial aid. We're the only university in North Carolina with a medical school, a dental school, and an engineering school in one location. That's really purposeful because everything we do is really looked at through the lens of student success, public service, and regional transformation. When you take a look at the population of Eastern North Carolina, that regional transformation lens is one that we take pretty seriously. It was something that I expected and that I was excited to come back to, is to really be an anchor institution for the 29-county region east of I-95.

So, you think about the 40 most distressed counties in the state of North Carolina or labeled as tier one counties in the state. 21 of those are located in the 29-county region east of I-95. So you literally can't drive from South Carolina to Virginia without leaving the tier one county in North Carolina. So what I think excited me so much about coming back was that the stakes are so high for a place like ECU. We're in the ninth largest state in the country and we have an entire region of people and students and individuals that we serve. ECU is really the hotbed of growth and knowledge and research and opportunity to provide a degree to students and folks within our region. So, so many things at ACE that I'm able to bring back and apply to this particular situation.

Sarah Spreitzer: Philip, you're making me really miss college campuses, and for the past year and half, we've really been grounded. I hope that we can come visit you after this is lifted and we can see some of the things in person that you're doing at ECU. But being here in D.C., we spend so much of our time working on the policy and the funding issues, then we don't always have the conversations about what's happening on the campus because we've moved onto the next crisis that Congress is dealing with. So, we've seen three COVID bills passed so far, I think it's close to $76 billion to our students and to our institutions. I think two of those bills passed right before you got to ECU. So, can you just talk a bit and walk us through what you did with those first two tranches of funding and how it's helped ECU respond to the COVID pandemic?

Philip Rogers: Yeah, Sarah, happy to do it. I think it's important to consider the broader context before we even hit the pandemic world that we're all living in today because we've been through some very challenging times in public higher education in North Carolina but also all over the country. There's no better seat to watch it unfold than at a place like ACE. So, I think you really have to look back even to that time period that Mushtaq was mentioning earlier in that 2006 through even 2013 or '14 to see a clear picture of what the true impact is today, especially on public higher education. In my mind, the recession was really the beginning of a very difficult period for public universities. I love to track the state higher education executive finance reports by the SHEEO Group. When you look at the latest one, the data are pretty clear over the last decade or so that higher education has started to build back some of the revenues we lost during the Great Recession but we're still not there yet. We're only about two thirds of the way back, in terms of the losses that occurred during that time period. So we're starting not necessarily from a position of strength as we moved into the pandemic, which nobody could predict. I mean, when I was at ECU the last time, we lost $100 million in both recurring and non-recurring dollars. We lost positions, especially in the faculty ranks. Many positions that still aren't back today that were cut years and years ago. So, we've had to really think through over the last decade how to operate in a much more extraordinarily efficient manner, a lean manner. We have to remind folks that we really are a good return on investment for the dollars that taxpayers invest into public higher education. We alone generate $2.5 billion a year to the state of North Carolina. So I think you have to come to the pandemic lens with that understanding that we were already hit pretty hard over the last decade.

Then you walk in the door of March 2019, which we all experienced well that we had to even close out our annual meeting and think about what a pivot to virtual looks like. Significant losses, particularly on the auxiliary side of the house. The first set of dollars that came into ECU in particular was about $19.4 million from the federal government, and we spent close to $10 of that, $9.7, distributed all of those dollars before June 30th, 2020. All focused on student aid, emergency grants. Made a huge... when you have 80% of your students that are receiving financial aid and about almost 40% that are Pell eligible students. I mean, there are people that when I walked in the door, I was getting emails from students saying, "I put money down on my housing deposit in a different country because I was traveling abroad. I haven't been able to get it back, and now I have to make a decision on whether I pay my rent here in Greenville, North Carolina or whether I pay my tuition bill." So these emergency grants that we can direct people to literally are saving students' lives in some ways, and helping them continue on their trajectory. So, we did $9.7 on student aid in the first round. We did another $9.5 to $10 on institutional aid. Almost all of those were used to backlog housing and dining refunds. We had a significant loss with everybody going home. So most all of that first round was used on shoring up losses in the auxiliary, enterprise functions of the university.

Then much of the same happened in the second round of the stimulus funding. We got another $9.7 or so million in student aid, 20.8, 21 million or so in institutional aid. We really tried to be a little bit more strategic in this round because we had more headway and more time to think about it. So we thought about completion grants that we dispersed, technology grants because students, they were going home and they needed access to broadband, they needed hotspots, they needed iPads and things to be able to continue their educational experience. Then of course emergency grants continued. But on the institutional aid front, testing was a really big deal for us at the time when that second round of HEERF dollars came through. So, we spent a significant number of resources on testing to be able to put our hands around the community and know what we were dealing with. Then again, the losses in our auxiliaries, I think we estimated more than $70 million or so in losses that those funds helped us really bridge the gap on to get to these last couple of semesters.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, it seems unbelievable that the first COVID package actually passed in March of 2020, so a year ago, and not knowing how long we were going to be in this and really, those first dollars, I mean I think were just... they were essentially to our students and our institutions surviving and allowing our students to continue their education and not lose an entire year or semester of their education. So now we've seen the third one has now passed, the American Rescue Plan Act, that's the first one under President Biden. You talked about the fact that you've been able to be more thoughtful with the second tranche. What's going to happen with this third tranche of funding that's coming out?

Philip Rogers: Yeah, and I'll go back to one piece, Sarah, because I think the stimulus funding we received during the Great Recession was very different than the funds we're receiving right now. Those were funds that were essentially giving us, buying us some time to think about how we could reset our business models and reset our budget strategies, because the dollars we lost in the Great Recession weren't coming back. This literally filled a gap during a very hard time right now where we know we can bring students back to campus. We've learned how to be more strategic in how to navigate this virus, where we've had about a third of our residents’ halls filled to capacity during this last semester or so. So, to your point around the money coming in the door at the right time, literally saved the day and bridged us to a point where now we can begin to try to build back the resources through housing and dining receipts and other opportunities in this spring, but hopefully even more so in the fall where we prepare to return to much more normal operations. The third round of stimulus funding was an opportunity to do a number of different things, and we were able to be I think much more strategic on this round because we know so much more about the virus, and we know so much more about our needs that we now know where to apply these dollars in a more strategic way.

So, $55.6 million for ECU in particular in this round. $29 million in student aid dollars. We'll take some of the same approaches to that front that we did previously but in a little more targeted way that I'm happy to talk about. Then $26.6 million for us on the institutional aid side. We've been very thoughtful this third round, not that we weren't thoughtful in the first two because those really were more emergency situations. This one, we can begin to pivot to striking the right balance between, what are the emergency situations that we need to continue to address, but also, there is going to be a moment where we plateau and we hit a point where we need to start looking to the future. We need to start thinking about how we can prepare for what the new world of higher education is going to look like in a post-COVID era. So, we've actually worked with our colleagues at the University of North Carolina system. We have a 17-campus system and we've developed a set of system-wide priorities through which we will allocate these dollars. There's five big areas that we're thinking about. You tell me which ones you want to go into the weeds on, and we're happy to unpack. Number one is public health needs, so thinking about how to continually mitigate the impact of COVID through testing and PPE supplies, wastewater surveillance, lots of other different strategies that they cost a lot of money when you want to bring students and faculty and staff back to campus. Number two is obviously affordability and how do we minimize the increase to the cost of attendance. There's a number of different things we can get into on that front.

My favorite one is looking around the corner to what the future's going to look like and what student success initiatives we can invest in, especially on the digital technology side to ensure that we're staying ahead of these curves again. We're also spending a lot of time thinking about in that bucket, what summer enrollment looks like, because that's a gap that can be a little bit scary in normal times. When you can't really predict what students are going to do over the summer months, that's a revenue stream and an opportunity for them to catch up from a year where many have fallen behind. So, we're paying a lot of attention to summer enrollment to accelerate degree completion. The fourth area is IT security and how we can strengthen cyber security in particular. Then of course access, and this is a big one for us, ensuring that we can enroll and retain low income and rural and underrepresented students. I talked about those 21 tier one counties in North Carolina. We bring a lot of students in from those areas. That's a high level of recruiting for us. So, those are our five big buckets where we're trying to be very strategic and we have plans for each one of them that we're discussing with the University of North Carolina system right now.

Mushtaq Gunja: Can I ask you about one of those, Philip?

Philip Rogers: Yep.

Mushtaq Gunja: I mean, we can talk about all five of them, all of which I think are extremely worthy goals and of course, crucial. One of the things that we've been tracking across the country are ways in which universities are interacting with their communities to help on the COVID front, be it with vaccination centers or some of the surveillance testing or other things. I was wondering if you might just spend a second talking about either what the University of North Carolina system has been doing in this regard or what East Carolina University's been doing in regard to the community in Greenville?

Philip Rogers: Yeah, there's been a really strongly coordinated effort between the University of North Carolina system and the Department of Health and Human Services for the state of North Carolina to ensure that we leverage our research capacity, we leverage our outreach ability in many regions across the state of North Carolina, and frankly, just our experts. We have two public medical schools in North Carolina that have a lot of resources that we can apply to this particular situation, and a lot of smart people who work in the areas of microbiology and immunology and infectious disease. Being able to leverage those brains during a crisis is a big deal. So, we actually received a third pot of dollars, or maybe a fourth pot, after the first three stimulus funds that came through. The state of North Carolina received stimulus dollars, I think in the first round of CARES Act funding. They essentially were a pass-through agency where they allocated to about $15 million to ECU's Brody School of Medicine to really think through how to support the community in the midst of the COVID response. So we leveraged those $15 million and have 20-plus projects that have been ongoing as a part of this work over the last year to focus on community testing in rural regions. We purchased a couple of mobile vaccination units that we have sent all over these tier one counties to be able to bring out the vaccines to folks who couldn't have access to transportation to get it. We've leveraged opportunities to develop research in biofeedback monitoring, because if people can't get home or if people can't leave their homes and get to the hospital when they have COVID, we can supply them with the right equipment so they can monitor their heart rates and they can monitor their breathing. We can teach them and educate them how to know when to make the phone call to 911 to get emergency help. We bought two state-of-the-art genetic sequencers and those help us conduct surveillance testing of viral variants that are coming through. So, there's so many others.

Two faculty members in particular received a lot of attention on this front, using the $15 million that came through. Dr. Paul Bolin led the Brody School of Medicine's research and clinical trials efforts. He used, I'm going to get way out of my knowledge of science in this phrase, but he used what he called convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19, the plasma treatment. More than $1 million from CARES Act funding that he leveraged to generate that additional insight from the studies he conducted and through clinical trials to help with some of these therapeutic agents that really have shown the potential to enhance immune responses to the virus. Then we have Dr. Rachel Roper, she's in our immunology department. She led the team that first sequenced the virus, and received funding from... CARES Act funding that passed through the legislature. It helped her utilize one of the new bio safety level three labs, those are the labs that give you the most protection when you're studying these highly contagious diseases, purchased through CARES Act funding to help us begin to test some of those immune responses to the vaccines that are targeting the virus. So, the funding has been a big deal, it really has allowed us to accelerate on the medical and health sciences side, the ability to source through where the challenges are with COVID-19 and help a region that often struggles in this area.

Mushtaq Gunja: So, Phil, you talked about building back. I guess in Washington we'd call it build back better, but let's talk about the future. Let's talk about the near future, if you don't mind. I mean, what does the fall look like at ECU?

Philip Rogers: Yeah, so we are full steam ahead for the fall. The first email that I sent to campus as the new Chancellor was seven days into the job and we announced the formation of a fall 2021 planning team that had the primary goal of bringing everybody back with as normal operations as possible. We want fall 2021 to look much more like fall of 2019 than it did fall 2020, where everyone was dispersed around campus. So, I have appointed about a 15-person team and there's four or five different working groups that are studying the HR and staffing level expectations. I think we're going to have many of our employees begin to return later this summer in preparation for students to hit the ground in August. We have three in-person commencement ceremonies that are happening on Friday this week, on May the 7th. So we'll have people back in our football stadium and sit socially distanced and in appropriate ways to be able to celebrate their loved ones graduating. We're going to have a majority of our classes back face-to-face. We're going to have our dining halls open, we're going to have double occupancy rooms. At the moment in our residence halls, we have a pretty solid vaccination distribution strategy.

The University of North Carolina system has delivered, to your previous question, Mushtaq, more than 80,000 vaccines around the state of North Carolina. Our clinic has done almost 3,000 alone here in Greenville to students and others. So we're working through a testing strategy as students return back to campus in the fall. We're working through things like wastewater surveillance, which interestingly has allowed us to identify a number of clusters in residence halls and get to those before they became an issue. We're really thinking about how we can activate what we're calling legal operational incentives for students and others to get the vaccine, because it's not mandated in the state of North Carolina. We do not have clear legal authority at ECU or with the UNC system to mandate the vaccine on our campuses right now. The state law in North Carolina places that authority squarely in the hands of the North Carolina Commission on Public Health. So, we're doing three things. We're strong messaging around the vaccine as we come back for the fall. Widespread clinics around the state and down east here at East Carolina. Then these bold operational incentives that will encourage students to get the vaccine and if they get it, we may give them the opportunity to opt out of the entry testing, we may give them the opportunity to opt out of isolation and quarantine if they come into contact with someone who has the virus. I'll tell you, I sat with 30 students last Sunday night for about two hours and having to quarantine and having to isolate when they're on campus, that is a big deal. They do not like to be in their dorm room for 10 consecutive days without contact on the outside world. So, that's an incentive that people are interested in, and is driving a lot of action in the vaccine clinics.

Mushtaq Gunja: Phil, it looks like you're going with more of a carrot approach than, I guess you don't have the stick of the vaccine requirements or the mandatory vaccinations. How is it going? So, do you have a sense of vaccine take up both on the students' side, on the staff faculty side? Are you thinking about other carrots that might work and might encourage folks for... as you approach the fall?

Philip Rogers: Yeah, electronics always work. The iPads, all the fun things that students want. Gift cards to the dining halls and pay off your parking fees and library books, those are the kinds of things that show a little interest in the vaccine. I've talked to some of my colleagues across the system. There was one Chancellor who has been able to test a portal site that they're using to invite staff and faculty and students to voluntarily identify whether or not they've received a vaccine. They've had about 30 to 40% of their campus community that have voluntarily said they've received the vaccine. So we're working on something similar here at ECU.
I think we were moving in a pretty strong direction; we pretty much had the J&J vaccine; it was much easier to do the one dose regimen with students on campus. It all depended on the allotments that we were receiving from the state. So there were some weeks where we got hundreds of vials of J&J vaccines that we could put out and there were other weeks we didn't get as many in. So it depended on the volume that were coming in as to how many folks we could vaccinate at one time. Then of course J&J went on pause, that happened right before our exams started. So we had a little bit of a drop off naturally, as a result of that, but the state and our partner here in North Carolina here at Eastern North Carolina Vidant Medical Center brought in Pfizer, they brought in Moderna. We've been working on strategies to get students vaccinated here before they leave, and then work with them to schedule their second appointment in whatever location that they're going next, wherever they live in their hometown, because it's really important to us to not send students home unvaccinated because it impacts the communities where they live and we want them to come back stronger in the fall when they come back to ECU.

Sarah Spreitzer: So, Philip, thinking ahead to the fall and you already touched a bit on enrollment and you're going to be fully reopened. I spend a lot of my time working on issues impacting our international students. Has that factored into your fall planning, whether or not your international students will be able to get back onto campus? What are you thinking about that population of students?

Philip Rogers: Yeah, I think we've been really fortunate at ECU. Between 2015 and 2019, we saw strong growth in our international student population. I mean, it was multiple years of wins in a row of increasing growth in that particular area. I think one of the things that contributes to it is we did have a... we were one of the early adopters of the global exchange program and the COIL work, the Collaborative on International Learning. We have a specially built global classroom here at ECU, so we try to expose all of our students to global and international experiences, whether they're digitally or in person. So because of that, we obviously value the incredible perspective that our international students bring to our campus. We have had a pretty challenging set of factors that have emerged as a result of COVID. Overall, our international student population is down almost 12% since the beginning of the pandemic last year. That 12% is if you use the widest definition of international students. So these are permanent residents, if you use a much more narrower definition, if you include non-permanent residents, we're probably at about a 17%, close to 20% decline in international students on our campus. So, it was a hard hitting year for us on that front.
I do think we're seeing signals of a rebound in the fall this year. The applications and the enrollments and the I-20 issuance are both up at the undergraduate and graduate levels. So we're feeling like we're back on track with the vaccine coming through, with things opening up much more clearly. We're optimistic about the way things will evolve on that front. We're seeing pretty good numbers on the broader enrollment side, too. Interestingly, we've had the best year in our history, in terms of the number of applications that we've received. The challenge I think will be figuring out how to drive that yield because I think there's still a lot of uncertainty in the minds of students and parents, whether or not they want to live on campus. Are they really prepared to put down that five or six or seven or $800 in enrollment deposits and housing deposits to confirm their place in a freshman class, not knowing 100% sure what this new world will do for us. So we're trying to put all of the mitigating factors in place that will allow us to be open and stay open and give those students and their families the assurances that they'll begin to have a college experience that they can really be proud of.

Sarah Spreitzer: Just to loop it back to where we started from, talking about the COVID relief packages. President Biden has now proposed an American Recovery Plan, which I think to your point about the recovery package that we have during the recession is looking forward. What is the post-COVID world going to look like? The proposal includes money for free community college, an increased Pell Grant, funding for minority serving institutions. From the federal policy side, what can we be advocating for here in DC to help ECU in that post-COVID period, whatever it's going to look like?

Philip Rogers: Yeah, we have a number of federal priorities that really track pretty nicely with what ACE has already established. So the Pell Grant piece is one that the University of North Carolina is all-in on. Obviously research funding is a big deal for us. You saw what universities and medical schools and health sciences campuses around the country can do with increased funding to respond to this medical crisis that we're all facing. Then of course student aid, it will be years of an impact for our students as a result of this pandemic, and particularly the adult learners in our country. My first day in this job I met a lady in our student center and she was having lunch with her four-year old daughter. She had been at a finance class, her daughter was doing online school in the student center while she was having lunch waiting for the next course to start. She was parenting and going to school at the same time. She said to me, "Without federal resources, without institutional financial aid, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be able to do this." So those are the stories, to your point earlier, Sarah, about being on a campus that strike right to your heart when you see these folks front and center. It feels good to know that you're creating an environment where you can serve these folks. I hope our members of Congress and our partners in DC and in the federal scene will have an opportunity to see some of those folks front and center as well, because they've done a lot of good for them and they can continue to do a lot of good for them in the future with their investments.

Mushtaq Gunja: Philip, it's been so good to see you. Anything else that we missed in this conversation? Anything else that you wanted to hit on?

Philip Rogers: Yeah, one of the areas that I love the most when I was at ACE was looking at the data from your Pulse Point Surveys. On the other side of the fence now on the campus level, I'm living and breathing the data that are emerging from those surveys each and every day. Our fantastic research team at ACE provides a really solid data foundation for understanding what's happening in higher education. Every day since March 15th, I've been able to see those top three issues of the mental health of our students and our faculty and our staff emerging. We had something, almost 9,000 visits to our counseling center over the period of August to April, through 2021. Isolation, feeling disconnected, so many real, tangible experiences that are front and center on this campus. Then you add on top of that the enrollment pressures and the long-term financial and short-term fiscal sustainability of an institution. These are real issues; they might be words on a page with surveys but they're happening on these campuses, and we need to pay attention to them. I'll also mention just as I'll wrap up because I want to give you a little love. I heavily rely on ACE's advocacy work. It's nice to be able to feel the incredible value that comes from being an ACE member institution. Ted Mitchell and the GR team and the Learning and Engagement team, you are delivering at the highest level for American higher education. We all appreciate you and are grateful to be a part of the process.

Sarah Spreitzer: Thanks, Philip.

Mushtaq Gunja: That's really nice of you to say, Philip. We will drop a link to those Pulse Point surveys that you mentioned in the show notes.

Jon Fansmith: To listen to earlier episodes and subscribe to dotEDU, you can find us on Apple podcast, Stitcher, Google Podcast, and wherever you get your podcasts. For show notes and links to resources mentioned in the episode, you can go to our website at acenet.edu/podcast. You can also use our email, podcast@acenet.edu, for suggestions for upcoming shows or guests you'd like to see, or just thoughts on how we're doing. Before we go, I'd like to thank Carly O'Connell, Laurie Arnson, Audrey Hamilton and Malcolm Moore, who are the exceptional producers of dotEDU and make us sound as good as we do every episode. Finally, I'd like to thank you for listening.
About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major public policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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