Oct. 18, 2021—Aurora, Colo.—The Community College of Aurora, in an effort to remove barriers to the attainment of a college credential, has used $1.11 million in federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) money to eliminate tuition debt for hundreds of its students.

The funds, made possible by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was signed into law at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, were used to clear the balances—totaling $669,800—for 378 students enrolled in fall 2020 classes at CCA. Nearly half of those students are now enrolled in fall 2021 classes and continuing what they had to put on hold because of the pandemic. An additional $442,200 in tuition debt will be written off in the coming days for 374 students enrolled in spring 2021 and/or summer 2021 classes at CCA.

“The Community College of Aurora is committed to the empowerment and upward mobility of our students,” CCA President Mordecai Brownlee said. “By CCA clearing these student debts, we are effectively removing barriers to the academic and career pathways of our students. Such action is critical as our students continue to experience the impact of COVID-19.”

According to The Hope Center for College Community and Justice in Pennsylvania, college students nationwide experienced higher food and housing insecurity in 2020. Data also show that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted minority populations, and 61 percent of the students CCA serves are minorities. The debt removals, Brownlee said, will help the impacted students focus on what matters most—continuing their college education and graduating.

The debt-clearing initiative is part of CCA’s larger efforts to help students impacted by the pandemic return to and graduate from college. To date, CCA has awarded $4.53 million in CARES/HEERF tuition and emergency grants to 3,955 students.

Elexas Whitaker is one such student who had her tuition debt canceled. Whitaker had been taking classes toward an Associate of Arts degree in Business at CCA before having to put her college education on pause because of the pandemic and the money she owned. Then, Whitaker received an unexpected email from CCA a few weeks ago: Her debt of $986.39 had been cleared and she was given the OK to enroll in classes again. Whitaker is back at CCA taking classes this fall, hoping to transfer to a four-year institution upon completing her associate degree and one day lead a company of some kind.

“It definitely took some stress away,” Whitaker said of having her debt cleared. “Paying rent was already stressful, especially after the pandemic hit. Having my debt removed gave me the opportunity to go back to school and not go into further debt.”

Concluded Brownlee: “We firmly believe the attainment of a higher-education credential (certificate or degree) is an essential toward efforts to eradicate poverty and advance productive citizenship within our communities served. We want to do anything and everything we can to help our students in these challenging times.”