Worcester State Utilizes ARRA Stimulus Funds

Posted on October 26, 2010 by

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By Debi Regan

Staff Writer

Since 2009, billions of federal stimulus dollars have been allocated through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which includes guidelines for how universities are to use these funds. The commonwealth’s Department of Higher Education (DHE) has awarded Worcester State a total of about $6.4 million of this money, and the law requires it to be used by September 2011. Several administrators describe the money as “extremely helpful,” but where exactly has it gone?

The first round of funding of approximately $4 million went almost entirely toward improving the campus.  According to a spreadsheet available on the Worcester State University website, this money was also used for one time purchases that would “mitigate the need to fund these items in the future with student fee increases.” The second and third rounds of funding went primarily to payroll in order to offset state budget cuts.

Kathleen Eichelroth, the Vice President for Administration and Finance, explains that the University must report to the DHE to account for where the ARRA funds are being used.  They also have to provide the DHE with an explanation of benefits each project provides students.  She says that the funds received “truly help to keep student fees in check.”  There have been improvements and changes around campus that may have taken years to be funded without the stimulus money, said Eichelroth.

Students should notice improvement with the technology on campus.  The ARRA funds received by the Internet Technology Department (IT) have been incredibly helpful—especially in light of budget cuts—according to the department’s Associate Director, Nancy Ramsdell.  The money given to IT funded two new Mac labs on campus, and new computers were purchased for all of the pre-existing computer labs.  Many classroom podium computers and projectors have been upgraded, as well as the wireless access points around campus.

Career Services purchased an important database, the Television Production editing booths were upgraded, and new equipment and software were installed in the Fuller Theater, located in the Administration Building.

Returning students will notice renovations to the second floor of the library, which have been partially funded by the ARRA money, including a wireless internet café.  New comfortable seating and a children’s area have also been added to this building.  Copiers and printers have been replaced, and a new emergency response system will be installed in the near future.

Other projects that were completed using ARRA funds include the construction of new labs in the Science and Technology Building for Nursing, Biology, and Chemistry Research, the addition of a new database, JSTOR, which is available through the library, and the replacement of outdated cardio equipment in the fitness center.  A consultant was hired to assist the University in becoming more carbon neutral in accordance with the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.

There are well known problems associated with stimulus funds; most notably, the “funding cliff” that results when a project is funded for a short time with stimulus money but must be cancelled when money runs out.

The IT Department made sure to avoid this pitfall by making “smart buys,” according to Ramsdell.  New equipment was purchased with warrantees to ensure that the cost of repairing and maintaining it will not raise student fees in the future.  IT also purchased excess computers while there is money available, including enough faculty laptops to cover future semesters.

However, the entire third round of ARRA funds received went toward the salaries and benefits of Worcester State University employees.  Once this money runs out, there will be an approximately $1.3 million gap in the budget, which would be the present case without the stimulus funds.

The benefits of stimulus funds awarded to the University are evident in the new amenities on campus, but they are only one-time projects.  Unless the University raises additional money in the following years, the budget gap will remain, potentially causing student fees to increase.  The University is attempting to raise revenue in new ways to avoid this gap and potential lay-offs.

This program has been relatively successful so far in keeping student fees from increasing.  Last year, fees increased $550 per student to cover the proliferated cost of living and inflation; however, considering the amount of stimulus money spent on useful and necessary projects, the increase in student fees could have been much greater without the funds.

Public schools across the state are tightening their budgets and increasing student fees.  The lack of funding for higher education in Massachusetts has been temporarily offset because of ARRA funds, but once this money runs out, schools will need to find other ways to fund their payroll and programs.  Students at Worcester State University have seen great improvements from these stimulus funds, but funding the budget without raising fees or conducting employee lay-offs is a problem that looms in the University’s future.  The ARRA funds are beneficial to the University, but as Eichelroth said, “the downside is that it’s temporary.”

 

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