Almost a year after the first wave of grants were distributed from the CARES Act, some students are getting another chance to receive federal funds.
The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), which was signed into law by President Trump in December, aimed to provide relief to Americans in certain sectors, such as education. The Higher Education Relief Fund (HEERF II), which is part of the CRRSAA, injected money into universities with faltering revenues, including USF. The University received $10.7 million, on the condition that nearly $3.7 million be spent on student emergency relief grants.
Some people, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, are not able to access these funds due to federal regulations.
At USF, the information and process on how relief grants would be distributed to students were unclear until April 13, when Interim Provost Tyrone Cannon sent a university-wide email regarding the funds.
Though USF has yet to distribute its federal funds to students, other universities began disbursing this money in March after finishing the Department of Education’s funding application process. For instance, Santa Clara University started taking applications for CRRSAA payouts starting March 29. While San Francisco State University was even more timely, with aid being directly deposited into student accounts beginning March 4.
According to the email, approximately 3,100 students had been notified the week before that they qualified for the federally-funded emergency relief grants ranging from $500 to $1,500. Who received these grants was based solely on FAFSA-calculated Expected Family Contribution (EFC) amounts. There is no formal application or appeal process, which shut out many students who may also need financial support. Graduating seniors were excluded from qualifying.
Under both the CARES Act and the CRRSAA, institutions are required to put 50% of relief funds directly towards student aid grants. The University will use the remainder of the funds, roughly $7 million, to cover losses incurred since the start of the pandemic. Mainly, the nearly $5.5 million in housing fees returned to students last spring and the loss of $25 million in projected housing revenue over the course of the pandemic.
The Department of Education recommends that only students whose families generate less than $50,000 a year should qualify to receive public funds. But, colleges and universities did have some leeway on how to allocate these federal grants. Santa Clara University allowed the money they received to go to qualified Pell Grant recipients and to deserving applicants who did not fit this criteria, as well. While the University of Texas at Dallas used EFC data and an application to determine which of their students qualified for aid. USF only used federal data for aid qualification.
Kalan Birnie, a senior politics and performing arts and social justice major who received a federally-funded grant last spring, said that USF’s criteria to receive funds being solely based on federal data could cause problems for students who are listed as dependents on their parent’s taxes, but largely financially independent.
“Last year the process for the first grant was a godsend. I work a lot to afford to live in San Francisco, not having to jump through any hoops and being automatically qualified for the grant helped ease some of the pressure,” Birnie said.
Despite his unchanged financial situation, USF’s decision to exclude graduating seniors from accessing the second round of federally-funded grants means that Birine will not receive any money this year. Working three jobs, Birnie is slightly more financially stable than last year, but he noted that now his only option to receive COVID-19 relief is through the dean’s emergency fund, a scholarship independent of FAFSA data designed for students in temporary financial hardship, which only has a maximum payout of $599.99, a decrease from last year’s $1,500.
The application process for the dean’s emergency fund is more complicated than federal funding, as documentation of financial hardship and proof of rejection in traditional financial aid avenues are necessary prerequisites to apply.
In response to a question about other approaches for students to seek financial relief, Vice Provost of Strategic Enrollment Management Michael Beseda commented, “As with the CARES Act grants, USF will offer Trustee Emergency Funds later this year via an application process. USF also provides emergency funds via the Dean’s Emergency Fund. I suspect that institutions awarding some part of CRRSAA funds through an applications process are not able to provide these additional resources.”
Only after a month of email inquiries did Beseda, who is in charge of disbursing these grants, reply to Foghorn requests for information.
Birnie also commented that he saw a lack of consistency in USF messaging versus institutional actions. With broad dissatisfaction from students with the financial aid office even prior to the pandemic, this year’s events have exacerbated the already strained relationship between the department and students. Birnie said that the financial aid office has made comments about trying to increase communication, however, it is still common to hear stories of students struggling to get someone to answer a phone call from the department.
100 fewer students than last year will receive federal funds.
According to Beseda, this shift is because, “Unlike the CARES Act grants, undergraduate and graduate students were awarded [CRRSAA grants] using similar need criteria and funding levels. And that approach very slightly reduced the number of students receiving grants.”
Editor’s Note: Kalan Birnie is a former Foghorn staff member.
Ethan Tan contributed to the reporting of this story.