How Identity Verification Can Help U.S. Colleges Weather the COVID Pandemic

COVID-19 continues to have a massive impact on higher education. After an initial rush to remote learning in the early days of the pandemic and a tumultuous fall semester, schools are taking different approaches to instruction this spring, with nearly 40% of U.S. colleges and universities teaching primarily online and more than a quarter offering in-person components.

Most of these institutions have had to ramp up expenditures to provide for new solutions that enable social distancing in the classrooms and also widen their online classes offerings to make sure they can comply with local pandemic regulations.

Colleges had to purchase lots of new safety equipment, online learning materials, laptops, hardware and additional software licenses to enable continuity of operation online with these COVID-19 emergency plans.

Online Identity Verification and Online Classes

With most instruction online, there is a growing need to remotely identify students and users of these academic programs. Several educational institutions have started adding online identity verification services to their online programs, which can be used to verify students remotely when enrolling or participating in online classes.

Here’s how it works:

  • Upon enrollment, a student takes a picture of their government-issued ID and a corroborating selfie.
  • The identity verification solution automatically verifies the validity of the ID document and matches the selfie with the picture on the ID.
  • The student’s personal information is extracted from the ID and compared with the student information on file with the institution to determine if the student is who they say they are and has the right to be added to the class.

When identity verification is paired with biometric authentication, it can ensure that the student attending an online class or exam is in fact the enrolled student.

The usage models seen in the market are very wide: Online identity verification can be directly implemented by colleges and universities, integrated into third-party online class management software platforms or leveraged by proctoring services during the testing process.

New COVID Relief Legislation Supports Higher Education

The U.S. government recently passed two bills to provide funds to higher education institutions to help them move online and deliver their education services remotely.

On Dec. 27 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 (CRRSAA). This law authorizes the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund II (HEERF II). In total, the CRRSAA authorizes $81.88 billion in support for education, in addition to the $30.75 billion former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos provided last spring through the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

On Jan. 14 2021, the U.S. Department of Education designated an additional $21.2 billion under HEERF II for higher education institutions to ensure learning continues for students during the pandemic.

Which Institutions Can Get These New Federal Funds, and How?

CRRSAA HEERF II allows schools and institutions that process U.S. federal student aid (via the Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965) to get additional funds for emergency help to students and institutions due to the pandemic (see the list here). Grant applications must be submitted before April 15, 2021.

Using the Funds

Recipients have one calendar year, from the date of their award, to expend funds. Schools must use at least 50% of the funds for emergency financial aid grants directly to students and the rest of the funds must be used “to cover any costs associated with significant changes to the delivery of instruction due to the coronavirus.”

Based on this new regulation, institutions may use the funds for institutional costs to:

  • Purchase equipment or software, pay for online licensing fees or pay for internet service to enable students to transition to distance learning as such costs are associated with a significant change in the delivery of instruction due to the coronavirus
  • Pay a per-student fee to a third-party service provider, including an OPM (Online Program Manager), for each additional student using the distance learning platform, learning management system, online resources, or other support services

Reporting requirements for expenditures will be specified in forthcoming announcements.

This is an example of the previous 2020 CARES Act quarterly budget and expenditure reporting.

Conclusion

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions have shifted some, if not all, of their academic activities online. Online identity verification solutions can be used to extend online classes to more students and enable continuity of academic programs. In this case, when the educational institution incurs new expenses due to the pandemic, it can request these special federal funds from HEERF II. In this way the institution can use the federal funds to help pay for the new software services or for new online student fees which are recognized by the new law.