This article has been a collaborative effort of Melisa Olgun ’20 and Elizabeth Ouanemalay ‘23.
The world is on fire. Everything is literally a mess. And especially for first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students, the world is in a particular firey and messy state. Wesleyan has attempted to provide financial support for FGLI students through various emergency funds, but students are still facing extraordinary uncertainty with a dwindling job market, stay-at-home orders, and apprehension towards entering the essential workforce in fears of contracting coronavirus. The FGLI GoFundMe addresses these concerns and continues to campaign to further its reach and continue providing support to students. The government (kind of) did a good thing by sponsoring the CARES Act, providing grants to colleges and universities around the US. This article examines what the CARES Act is, what it does, and what the University is planning on doing with the over 2 million dollars they have received.
The CARES Act
The CARES Act: Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund gives funding to institutions to provide emergency financial aid grants to students facing financial struggle due to COVID-19. Students who have filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are qualified to receive these grants, although the financial threshold is ultimately decided by the university. Institutions may provide emergency financial aid grants using checks, electronic transfer payments, debit cards, and other payment apps. Debts, charges, fees, or other amounts owed to the institution may not be deducted from the grant given to the student. No less than 50 percent of funds given to the University must be used as direct emergency grants to students. The other 50 percent of funds may be used to further support students who have faced financial uncertainty due to COVID-19.
The CARES Act and Wesleyan
Wesleyan received $2,257,086, of which $1,128,543 must be redistributed as emergency financial aid grants to students, and other NESCACs have also received funding. In talks with Dean Whaley, the Financial Aid Office is working through a few scenarios, with the plan to disperse the $1,128,543 to all or some financial aid recipients. This is in addition to other financial aid measures, including waiving summer earnings expectations, announced in an all-campus email by President Roth:
The plan for the remainder of the CARES Act funding (the remaining $1,128,543) is still tentative, but there are some possible options under deliberation by Administration. One of these options involves alleviating the $15 million deficit –– which is expected to grow –– caused by COVID-19. This “reimbursement” of sorts would cover already distributed emergency funds to students, including the Residential Comprehension Fee (RCF) refund given to students who moved off-campus, travel and storage expenses, and other pools of money used as emergency funding (this may also include the WSA’s Supplementary Emergency Fund). Basically, any money the University has spent that relates to COVID-19 is fair game.
The reality of any of these options –– both how the University has proposed to handle direct emergency grants and its planned “reimbursement” for COVID-19 expenses –– do not support high-need students in the CARES Act’s intended capacity. If the university moves forward to distributing the emergency grant in the form of student summer contribution, seniors who are hit hard with campus unemployment that will extend to the current abysmal job market will not receive any direct financial relief. Further, these policies could effectively exclude students who take a semester off, further narrowing the reach of this financial relief. If a low-income student decides to take a leave of absence, the current policy bars them from receiving financial support through the CARES Act because such support is currently tied to financial aid. As such, the university must reexamine its responsibility to low-income students now that coronavirus has brought forward institutional gaps in access to resources.
How Should the University Act?
The FGLI Advisory Board, who is in charge of the FGLI GoFundMe Campaign, has emailed Dean Mike Whaley, VP of Finance Chris Olt, and VP of Equity and Inclusion Alison Williams to offer a more equitable solution. Written by Jessi Russell ‘20, Elizabeth Ouanemalay ‘23, and myself, the email expresses that historically the student summer contribution is meant to cover out-of-pocket expenses such as textbooks and transportation costs and thus does not provide the immediate financial relief that FGLI students need. The FGLI Advisory Board, instead, endorses the University to use the Qualified Disaster Relief Payment (QDRP) system to allocate the $1,128,543 to the 630 high-need students who qualify for the printing stipend on campus. Using this threshold, students who are at most risk would receive a $1,791.34 grant in the form of a tax-free stipend to help support themselves and their families. This reallocation will allow the grant to not only reach students who have been already identified by the University as high-need but will also provide immediate financial relief to students who are already facing uncertainty.
Click here to see FGLI Advisory Board's email
Hello Dean Mike, Alison, and Chris,
I hope everyone in this email exchange has found time to enjoy the sunny weather!
I am writing today to inquire about the $1,128,543 in federal funding allocated to students on financial aid at Wesleyan University per Section 18004(a)(1) of the CARES Act. Within the next few weeks, our campaign hopes (a) to offer suggestions for how the federal funding from the CARES Act could best be allocated to members of the FGLI community and (b) to clearly understand the University’s plan for allocating these funds.
According to our sources, the University intends to use the money allocated through the CARES Act to relieve students of their Student Contribution (SC) for the next academic year. The FGLI Advisory Board that oversees the GoFundMe does not support this use of the $1,128,548 because it does not prioritize low-income students or alleviate recurring costs like groceries, rent, or utilities. Please see our concerns with this plan enumerated below.
- The students that the University terms its “neediest” have a Student Contribution (SC) of $1200, meaning that these students would receive the least amount of money from the CARES Act.
- The money that students earn over the summer is meant to cover out-of-pocket expenses such as textbooks and transportation costs for the majority of FGLI students, not tuition. If the University intends to put this money toward credit on a student’s account to cover tuition, it will put members of the FGLI community at a disadvantage.
- Perhaps most importantly, paying tuition is not the priority of FGLI students whose family cannot make ends meet during the pandemic. Simply reducing our Student Contribution (SC) to $0 would be a gross misestimation of FGLI students’ needs.
Our campaign firmly believes that Qualified Disaster Relief Payments (QDRPs) fulfill the needs of low-income students in a more timely manner than the reimbursement-based emergency fund. Moreover, these tax-free stipends utilize data previously collected by the Office of Financial Aid, which saves low-income students from having to articulate their current circumstances in an effort to prove need. We therefore endorse the Qualified Disaster Relief Payment (QDRP)–a compromise borne to align the priorities of the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), the Finance Office, and our grassroots campaign–as the method by which the University should allocate the $1,128,543 earmarked for Wesleyan students on financial aid per Section 18004(a)(1) of the CARES Act.
Next, we would like to discuss the threshold. It appears to us after reading through Section 18004(a)(1) that any student who filled out the FASFA can be a recipient of the CARES Act. Our campaign would like to suggest that the University allocate the $1,128,543 to the roughly 630 students who qualify for the printing stipend because it reaches any student that could be at-risk during the pandemic. Assuming that the University will not reimburse itself for the money already reallocated to at-risk students as regulated against in the legislation, this threshold would ensure that every student with a printing stipend receives $1,791.34 in the form of a tax-free stipend. It would, in effect, be a stimulus check for any at-risk student that did not qualify.
It was important for us to share with you both our preliminary thoughts. What other methods have the University considered, and using what threshold? Does the University have access to this money yet? What is the projected timeline for redistributing these funds to students on financial aid? Do the funds have to be out, say, before graduation? All questions our campaign is excited to answer alongside y’all!
As always, we hope that you and your loved ones are well-fed, rested, and safe.
With love and in solidarity,
Jessi Russell ‘20, Melisa Olgun ‘20, and Elizabeth Ouanemalay ‘23
Importantly, the implications of COVID-19 bleeds far beyond just the student body. FGLI students are as much in financial uncertainty as is the incredible support staff who work tirelessly to ensure that the University exists in the first place. The University is responsible for supporting our most vulnerable, and that support cannot stop at the student body. Yes, having a huge deficit sucks, and universities around the world will have to face financial trouble for some time. But the financial market will come back and the endowment and the deficit will resolve itself in due time. Right now, the University must act to support our janitors, our Bon App workers, our support staff who are essential to Wesleyan. Thus, the University should consider using the second half of the CARES Act funding to provide financial relief to our support staff.
What Are Other Universities Doing?
Universities who have received the CARES Act grant have moved somewhat quickly. Here’s an incomplete list of what other institutions are doing:
(Editor’s/Melisa’s note: there really isn’t a lot of information out there regarding how our peer institutions are planning to use their funding. Above all, universities must be transparent throughout this process and have FGLI students actively involved in decision-making to ensure that these decisions are made in the FGLI community’s best interests.)
- The University of Washington has dispersed funds to students as of April 27 to “students who meet basic eligibility criteria for federal financial aid and who have the greatest financial need.” The standard relief grant is $1,200. Students with dependents will receive $1,700.
- The University of Pittsburg will disperse $10.6 million to undergraduates who received a Federal Pell Grant or who have unmet financial need, among other at-risk populations.
- Princeton, Penn, Harvard, and Yale have turned down their allocation.
- Trinity has received $1,136,44 but has yet to comment on how they will use their funding.
- Middlebury received $1,863,094 and will distribute half of those funds in the form of direct checks. The other half of their allocation is anticipated to offset already paid expenses that have contributed to the deficit caused by COVID-19.
This is an incredibly complex time, and we must come together to support those who are the most affected by COVID-19. As a note, you can still support FGLI students through the FGLI GoFundMe, which aims to directly place funds to FGLI students without means-testing.
Editor’s Note (5/4/20, 4:19 PM): An earlier version of this article said that funding for the summer earnings contribution would come from the CARES Act, but after speaking with Dean Whaley, we learned that it would actually come from institutional funding to offset the increase in financial aid associated with that decision. Further, the University has not yet received any of these Federal funds and will keep in communication as details are finalized. The article has been updated accordingly.