College teachers and students discuss some of the challenges they face as their classes move online for the foreseeable future.
When the federal government announced it would distribute nearly $6.3 billion to colleges to give to students in need, the aid was met with fanfare.
The Education Department said April 9 the coronavirus money was on its way. For nearly every student, the money still hasn’t arrived.
On Tuesday, the Education Department specified that huge groups of students wouldn’t be eligible at all. For instance, students who are ineligible for federal student aid can’t get this emergency money. That includes undocumented students, international students and recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program from President Barack Obama’s administration that offered immunity for two-year periods to immigrants brought to the country as children without documentation.
And some eligible students don’t even know the money is supposed to be available to them.
That was the case for Alyssa Weeley, 22. She is in her final year studying photography at the University of South Carolina, and the last few weeks have felt precarious. She normally works two part-time jobs, one at a local vintage thrift store and the other as a manager of a photography lab at the university.
She hasn’t been able to work at either for roughly two months, and she worries about her ability to buy groceries. She is behind on her April rent, though her landlord is giving her more time to pay. She has applied for unemployment, but hasn’t heard anything yet. Her tax refund has yet to arrive, and she wasn’t eligible for the stimulus checks made available through the CARES Act. She also said she was looking to receive some aid from the university tied to her job, but she hasn’t seen that money either.
“People keep saying, ‘Here is all this money,’ ” she said. “But it’s not being given out.”
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And now she feels the same way about this latest round of federal money. It would help, she said, but she is not sure if she will be eligible for it.
Jeffrey Stensland, a spokesperson for the University of South Carolina, said the university has developed a method to distribute money to students, and officials are eager to start communicating that to students.
Still, that means so far students have heard nothing.
The university, like many around the country, blamed the Department of Education for a lack of guidance. The Education Department had said colleges were unnecessarily delaying the process, before releasing more instructions on Tuesday.
“We were advised not to offer specific details prior to those being issued,” Stensland said. “Please know that we’re doing all we can to address the multitude of questions and concerns of students and families.”
Meanwhile, Weeley said she will wait.
“We’ll get through it,” she said. “I have had times before when I haven’t had any money.”
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College students in the CARES Act stimulus
Through the CARES Act, colleges will receive about $14 billion, roughly $6.3 of which must go to students who are impacted financially by the coronavirus. The amount a college receives is largely based on the number of full-time students who are eligible for Pell Grants, federal scholarships for low-income students. Institutions themselves are supposed to determine who will receive the money, according to the Education Department. The funding was meant to help students pay for course materials, food, housing and health care, among other things.
Colleges had been wary of distributing the money for fear of running afoul of future guidance from the federal government, said Justin Draeger, CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
There were questions, he said, of which students were eligible and just how the funds could be used. Colleges needed assurance they wouldn’t be penalized for how they give out the money down the line.
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Colleges also are figuring out whether to institute an application process or how to find out how students have been affected by the coronavirus, he said.
But the biggest problem? Of the institutions Draeger has spoken to, all have yet to receive it. And they can’t distribute money they do not have.
On Tuesday, after USA TODAY and other media outlets wrote about this issue, the Education Department said it had released some of the federal money meant to shore up institutions’ finances. The department said about half of eligible colleges had applied for the emergency money.
What colleges say
Ahead of Tuesday’s comments from the Education Department, the USA TODAY Network reached out to more than a dozen institutions across the country to find out what they had told students about the federal aid. For the most part, their answers were light on details. Few colleges could say when the money might be going out to students.
Many said they had developed formulas or rough ideas for how to get the money to students, but they didn’t want to implement those without further guidance from the federal government.
Arizona State University is supposed to receive roughly $32 million for its students — one of the largest amounts of any university in the country. Officials said priority would be given to students with “unforeseen financial changes due to issues such as job loss, income reduction or illness.”
As of Monday, universities such as Ohio State, Indiana and Louisiana State — each of which is receiving millions of dollars from the CARES Act — lacked a plan for distributing that money to students. Ohio State released a plan on Tuesday, saying students must apply for the money and it would be distributed based in part on students’ circumstances.
The University of California at Berkeley also said it was still developing a process to distribute money. “Our main focus in allocating the funds will be to ensure that students can continue to make progress towards graduation,” spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said in an email.
Clemson University in South Carolina said it hadn’t made any decisions yet, but a working group would give recommendations to its board of trustees.
Similarly, the University of Texas in El Paso said regents for the University of Texas system had to approve any plan for dispersal.
At Bob Jones University, a private university in South Carolina, students will have to fill out an application for the money. Priority will be given to students who were financially affected by the disruption of the spring semester, the college said.
McMurry University, a private university in Abilene, Texas, is planning to pass out money based mostly on students’ expected financial contribution, a federal number based on a family’s wealth that schools often use to award financial aid.
Two for-profit universities, the University of Phoenix and Grand Canyon University, said they planned to give students an extra allotment of federal money. Both the student aid money and additional federal money meant to shore up universities during the pandemic would go to their students, the colleges said.
The online-heavy University of Phoenix, however, is only giving its money to students who were not “exclusively studying online before the COVID-19 pandemic.”
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Contributing: Steve Berkowitz, USA TODAY; Timothy Chipp, Abilene Reporter-News in Texas; Monica Kast, The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee; Olivia Krauth, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky; Rachel Leingang, The Arizona Republic; Arika Herron, The Indianapolis Star; Molly Smith, The El Paso Times in Texas; Zoe Nicholson, The Greenville News in South Carolina
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
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