The Community College of Philadelphia will use $2.75 million in stimulus funds to pay off the outstanding school balances of as many as 3,500 of its students, a step that would allow them to continue their studies this fall.

CCP’s move is part of a larger effort by colleges nationally to assist students whose education may have been disrupted or negatively affected by the pandemic. Community colleges, which often serve higher percentages of students from low-income families and students of color, have seen large numbers drop out.

“Our students, most of whom receive some level of financial aid, were hit very hard,” Donald “Guy” Generals, CCP’s president, told The Inquirer on Monday. “They were affected in terms of their education, their lives, their families, and their jobs.”

CCP’s enrollment is currently down about 24%, Generals said, though that could change as the college’s efforts to get more students to return continue. The college expects to have about 13,000 students this fall.

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To be eligible for the debt relief, students must have been enrolled at the college between March 13, 2020, when the pandemic took hold, and the end of the most recent semester, Generals said. The funds will be applied to both bookstore fees and tuition that haven’t been paid, the college said.

Colleges nationally have received $76 billion in federal stimulus aid since the coronavirus began and have been required to give about half of it directly to students in need. Schools have developed various approaches to distributing the aid. Like CCP, others including Delaware State University, Bloomsburg University, and Montgomery County Community College have opted to target some funds toward outstanding student bills.

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“What Community College of Philadelphia is doing is exactly what Congress had in mind,” said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the Washington D.C.-based American Council on Education. “This enables thousands of people to continue their college education when they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

Hartle didn’t have an estimate on how many other schools will use the money toward debt relief. Colleges serve populations with differing needs, he said. Some are replacing students’ lost wages during the pandemic, he said. Some are helping students avoid borrowing. Others are giving the money to students from lower- income families who may have greater financial pressure, he said.

Temple University has already distributed $29 million to students and has an additional $39 million to hand out, and is contacting students and asking if the university can use some of the money to wipe out their outstanding balances, said Ken Kaiser, Temple’s vice president and chief financial officer.

“If students allow us to use it to pay down their debt, it’s great for them because they can come back to class and it’s great for us,” Kaiser said.

Bloomsburg, one of 14 universities in Pennsylvania’s state system, is using some of the funds to erase past student balances that are preventing students from reenrolling, said Tom McGuire, a spokesperson.

Montgomery County Community College has applied about $717,000 of its institutional stimulus funds toward debt relief for 1,071 students, according to Charles Somers, the college’s vice president of finance.

At CCP, Generals said the student population was particularly vulnerable during the pandemic. Many are students of color and about 70% of students qualify for federal Pell grants targeted to lower-income families.

Generals said CCP staff has been reaching out to eligible students and though he didn’t have exact numbers, some have already accepted the help and are registering for the fall. The first day of classes is Sept. 7.

LaShonda Thomas, 33, of Northeast Philadelphia, said she was shocked when she got the email from the college that said her balance of more than $600 was forgiven.

“I registered as fast as I could,” she said.

She left college when the pandemic started, she said, and she couldn’t pay the balance at that time. She said she was planning on paying it so she could reenroll this fall and finish her degree in medical billing and coding. Now, she can start with a clean slate.

Generals noted that CCP, which received about $100 million in stimulus funds, is not using the money that must be targeted to students for the debt relief effort, but rather funds allocated to address other problems related to the pandemic, including paying employees whose jobs might have been lost. The debt relief effort, he pointed out, also helps the college by getting back some of the students it lost.

“We’re trying to clear the path into higher education for these students as much as possible,” Generals said. “We can’t allow an entire generation of students to lose momentum toward their degree.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.