On April 9, 2020, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that $6 billion of the Cares Act stimulus bill would be distributed “immediately” for current college students. In a letter to institutions of higher learning, DeVos said the money was “to encourage the leadership of each institution to prioritize…students with the greatest need” while also attempting to distribute the funds “as widely as possible.”
Grants were doled out to schools according to a formula, with three-quarters of the money based on each school’s Pell student enrollment. (Federal Pell grants are awarded to low- and moderate-income college students.)
Schools must make sure at least half the money is used for emergency expenses, such as housing and food, health expenses, loss of the student’s employment, child care, course material and new technology needed to take classes online. Colleges that primarily offered online learning before the pandemic won’t receive funds for students, under the presumption that their circumstances hadn’t significantly changed. It is reported there will be funds available for the colleges themselves in the coming days.
The challenge comes in how the institutions determine who gets cash and the worry that the needs of the vulnerable students will be greater than the funds presented. Rationing will surely be required, according to Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist at Temple University who studies college student poverty.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reached out to 40 recipients of CARES Act student funds, working with Ben Miller, the vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, to identify the top 10 in each of four sectors as defined by the Department of Education—four-year public universities, two-year public colleges, private nonprofit colleges, and for-profit colleges. Thirteen institutions provided substantive responses.
Some universities will be using formulas based at least in part on the information found in students’ Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms, including the estimated family contribution figures. Other institutions will be using applications, and a handful will use a combination of the two. Boston University, for example, will probably use a hybrid of application and formula.
José F. Méndez, president of the private Universidad Ana G. Méndez in Puerto Rico, determined a simple formula to cover all 32,800 students currently enrolled: students with expected family contributions of $0 will receive approximately $800, while all other students will get about $500, because they were all affected by going online.
However, Southern Methodist University assistant professor Dominique Baker is not convinced that the FAFSA reveals all the needy students. “Adding 15 extra questions on a form probably isn’t going to help with that,” Baker says. “All that’s actually happened is you’ve made it harder for students to get the money, but it’s still not going to give you the information you need to select who the neediest are.”
Baker, who studies underrepresented students in higher education, feels giving grant money to more students is the better model, as it ensures that the people who need it receive it. Goldrick-Rab uses the same argument to justify using applications; she references research done by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, which reveals many more students are homeless and food-insecure than government data appears to suggest.
New applications will provide updated student information, while FAFSA only reflects what was true when the student filled it out. That’s why the private Florida institution Keiser University, which changed to a nonprofit nine years ago, will be using applications for its 18,000 enrolled students.
“We need to make that process as streamlined and as easy as possible,” JoEllen Soucier, Houston Community College executive director of financial aid, says. “I feel like we’ve done that with the application.” Students will simply check off on an online form that they have suffered financially due to the pandemic and which living expense they need help to pay. They will not need to supply backup documents.
The Northridge campus of California State University has about 37,000 students; what they’re considering is asking those who already get financial aid to “opt in” while having a full online application ready for those don’t currently receive aid. Money will be disbursed based on how much financial aid each student receives.
“We want to strive to make two things happen,” Dianne Harrison, president of Northridge, says. “One is to make it so the most students get as much aid that we can provide, as quickly as possible, and we do it in a way that our staff can actually achieve that kind of efficiency and effectiveness.”
Two institutions will only use applications; students who don’t fill them out won’t get money at all. There are likely to be other colleges not surveyed, or who did not respond, using that method; for students, if your college is using applications, be sure to complete them!—Marian Conway