The University will receive $11.7 million through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, signed into law on March 27 to help mitigate the fiscal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In accordance with the Act’s stipulation that half of the aid received must directly benefit students, the University will distribute $5.8 million in aid to students.
Although some universities have declined to apply for funds from the CARES Act, the University decided to opt-in to the CARES act because the funding “will allow the University to support students who are experiencing financial difficulties as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and help offset significant financial losses the University has incurred,” deputy University spokesperson Wes Hester said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily.
The University has incurred financial losses in both the academic and health departments, with the University Health System facing an $85 million deficit per month due to a significant drop in surgeries and clinic visits. In response, some non-patient care staff have been furloughed, and the hospital leadership, along with physicians and leaders at the Medical Center, Physicians Group, School of Medicine and School of Nursing, have taken various pay cuts. The University’s senior leadership has also taken a ten percent pay cut.
Universities that have declined to apply for funds include Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania — each among the group of American universities with the top twenty largest endowments. Although the University — with an endowment of $9.6 billion — is also among those top twenty as one of only four public institutions included, those institutions that declined funding from the CARES Act are all private institutions with endowments significantly greater than that of the University.
The amount each institution received from the CARES Act was in part determined by the number of Pell Grant-eligible students, a metric that correlates to the number of enrolled students from low-income families — those who have been hit the hardest and left the most vulnerable by the current economic crisis.
According to the Pell Grant Report by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, in the 2018-19 academic year, the University had 2,327 students receiving Pell Grants, representing 13.9 percent of the undergraduate student population. During that same academic year, Piedmont Virginia Community College had 1,411 Pell Grant-receiving students, representing 25.9 percent of the undergraduate population, and PVCC received approximately $1.9 million from the CARES Act, with approximately $950,000 directly benefiting students.
Since shifting to online learning in mid-March, the University has provided eligible students with emergency financial support for “travel, technology, food, medication and other living expenses,” Hester said. Aid from the CARES Act will be distributed in addition to the emergency financial support already provided by the University.
According to Hester, Student Financial Services is currently developing a “simple and streamlined process to evaluate applications and distribute funds [from the CARES Act] to eligible students as expeditiously as possible,” and information about how to apply for aid will be posted on the SFS website in early May.
Kenzie Cooper, a first-generation and low-income third-year Curry student who will be graduating early this year, plans to apply for aid from the CARES Act. Although she is still receiving income from her Federal Work Study job at a local elementary school, she is only making half of what she had been making before the pandemic due to the elementary school having many days off.
“Right now, my biggest concern is that I am not going to receive any money since I am graduating and that they will wait until the fall to start the process,” Cooper said. “I did email SFS to check on when they were planning on giving out money, and they basically said that they were still figuring out the process because they have to follow guidelines and reminded me that there are student loans available.”
Cooper, like many upperclassmen at the University, lives off-Grounds, and she is still being held responsible for her rent despite having severely reduced income as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I've been stressed because I was hoping for some type of tuition reimbursement … so it would be nice to get some type of money [through the CARES Act],” she said.
Although the University issued prorated housing and dining refunds for the Spring 2020 semester, tuition refunds were not issued.
“The University is not saving any money by temporarily providing instruction online,” Hester said in a previous email statement to The Cavalier Daily. “We are continuing to pay for the costs of in-person delivery while adding costs of online delivery.”
The University issued roughly $18 million in refunds to students for unused housing and dining costs, with the University itself directly funding $12 million of those refunds and Aramark — the contractor that oversees most of the University's dining services — absorbing the remaining $6 million.
The other half of the funding the University received from the CARES Act will be used to address those “extraordinary losses incurred by our auxiliary services for prorated housing and dining refunds given to students for the Spring 2020 semester,” Hester said.
Cooper also expressed concern about returning to her part-time job at a grocery store where she has typically worked during school breaks.
“I really do not feel comfortable going back to work there since my parents are older, and I don’t wanna pass anything onto them,” she said. “I just don’t feel safe going to work in such a busy place.”
Because she is technically still considered an employee at that grocery store, Cooper is unable to file for unemployment. Additionally, despite working a job and being responsible for her own tuition, rent, bills and other expenses, Cooper did not receive a stimulus check through the CARES Act because her parents still claim her as a dependent for tax purposes.
“I feel like this is a problem...for a lot of [first-generation and low-income] students,” she said. “Being claimed as a dependent does not make a student financially secure in any way.”
Among those who have also been excluded from receiving aid from the CARES Act are undocumented individuals. Under the act, only those who file taxes with a Social Security number are eligible for aid, and thus undocumented immigrants who file taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number are left ineligible.
Education Secretary Betsy Devos has stated that aid from the CARES Act can only go to students who are eligible for federal financial aid, thereby excluding undocumented students, including those with DACA status.
“[Her decision] seems especially awful given that she not only excluded undocumented students without DACA, who are usually always first to be thrown under the bus, but she [also] went a step further to prevent students with a status that for the most part is widely accepted for benefits and employment,” said Steven Radilla, third-year College student and incoming president of DREAMers on Grounds.
All students at the University, including DACA students, will be eligible to apply for emergency hardship payments according to Hester.
“That fund has multiple funding sources, including philanthropy,” Hester said. “The CARES funds will not be used for students not eligible for CARES funds.”
According to Radilla, sources of aid have always been available to DACA students, but they have often had to seek out that information themselves “instead of just receiving it unasked for” as they did in this situation. Although the University has made these financial resources available, “some institutions might not be offering these resources for their students at all, and that’s kind of what Devos’s decision highlighted,” he said.
“It’s extremely important that universities recognize this vulnerable population and take steps to dedicate administrative staff or an undocu+ student coordinator solely for the protection and benefit of undocu+ students,” Radilla said, adding that an undocu+ student coordinator at an institution would “advocate for and find resources for undocumented students.”
The existence of an undocu+ student coordinator position assumes that an institution does matriculate all students regardless of status, which could happen at the University soon due to the work of activism from students, including those in DREAMers on Grounds, and community members for many years.
Currently, the University does not matriculate undocumented students without DACA status, and there are 22 undocumented students with DACA status enrolled at the University. However, Gov. Ralph Northam, D-Va., signed a bill in April that expanded in-state tuition to undocumented residents of Virginia, and University President Jim Ryan recently expressed to DREAMers on Grounds his verbal commitment to matriculating, providing financial aid for and supporting undocu+ students.
“DACA has never been a permanent solution, nor has it ever meant that recipients became documented, and [this exclusion from the CARES Act] reminds people why it’s important to advocate for all students regardless of status,” Radilla said.