In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Binghamton University has received more than $13.6 million in funds allocated through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The U.S. Senate passed a $2 trillion bill to provide support for the American economy called the CARES act. This relief package included the HEERF, which aims to provide Title IX education institutions with funds to continue work-study programs, issue student loan relief and emergency financial aid grants for students. Despite the bill passing in late March, BU has still not received the money, according to Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations.
“We applied for the CARES funding at the earliest possible time, April 13, but have yet to receive it,” Yarosh wrote in an email.
The CARES act emphasizes that educational institutions must use half of their allocations for emergency financial aid grants for students. For BU, that means roughly $6.8 million must be used for students in need.
Eligibility for students to receive emergency financial aid grants is given to those who have completed and shown eligibility for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). How institutions decide to spread the funds to students is up to each university or college, according to Betsy DeVos, the U.S. secretary of education.
“The CARES Act provides institutions with significant discretion on how to award this emergency assistance to students,” DeVos wrote in a letter to college and university presidents. “This means that each institution may develop its own system and process for determining how to allocate these funds, which may include distributing the funds to all students or only to students who demonstrate significant need.”
DeVos also noted her desire for universities and colleges to give the funds to students most in need while considering that the funds should be distributed as widely as possible.
The amount of money given to each university was determined through a formula using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and Pell Grant Volume data from the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA). According to the Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) of the Department of Education, Pell Grant eligibility was a major determining factor for how funds were divided up.
“The first factor primarily allocates funds based on undergraduate enrollment since Pell Grant eligibility is limited to undergraduates and students in postbaccalaureate teacher education programs,” the OPE wrote in their methodology for calculating allocations. “The second factor allocates funds based on undergraduate and graduate enrollment.”
The allocations provide insight into how many students are in need at each university.
BU falls behind other State University of New York (SUNY) universities, like University at Buffalo, Stony Brook University and University at Albany, which received about $23.9 million, $19.7 million and $16 million respectively. The difference in allocation can be chalked up to student population numbers, with Stony Brook University and University at Buffalo having more students than BU. The University at Albany, however, has fewer students than BU, highlighting the disparity of SUNY students across campuses in regard to financial aid for those in need.
According to Yarosh, what to do with the other half of the funds is still up in the air, as University officials await guidance from SUNY on how the money can be used. According to the OPE, the other half cannot be used by universities to reimburse themselves for already provided technological equipment, paid work-study programs, suspended room and board fees and other aid institutions may have provided to students. The act does require institutions to use the money to continue to pay university employees, along with providing financial aid.
“The CARES Act requires each institution that accepts funds from the HEERF, including funds used to pay emergency financial aid grants, to continue to pay employees and contractors to the greatest extent practicable based on the unique financial circumstances of each institution,” the OPE wrote. “However, institutions may not use emergency financial aid grants to students to pay employees and contractors.”
While BU waits for the funds and direction from SUNY, worries about financial security for students and the University as a whole have settled in. In BU President Harvey Stenger’s quarterly report, Stenger expressed concern for the future of state revenues and how it will affect SUNY campuses.
“We also are very concerned about the impact that the virus will have on state revenues and the budget for SUNY, with the New York state Legislature due to complete the 2020-21 budget by April 1,” Stenger wrote in his report. “New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has suggested that the virus and related closings of businesses could significantly affect state revenues — on the order of multiple billions of dollars. So we are all holding on to our hats and hoping for the best.”
Since the release of the quarterly report, the 2020-21 State Fiscal Year (SFY) budget was released and saw a reduction of $1.1 billion from the previous year for state aid for public schools. This “Pandemic Adjustment,” as DiNapoli calls it, will be offset by funding from the CARES act. In his report, DiNapoli emphasized the need for more federal aid. DiNapoli also wrote of his concerns for the Maintenance of Effort (MOE) provision within the CARES act, which could prove challenging to institutions.
The MOE provision mandates states to provide a budget and level of aid that is similar to that of the past three fiscal years for public institutions in order to be eligible for CARES funding. According to DiNapoli, this could prove to be challenging for levels of aid to different districts, although states can request a waiver if they are unable to meet this requirement.
“Different interpretations of this provision could drive different levels of aid to districts,” DiNapoli wrote in SFY 2020-21 Enacted Budget: Budgeting in a Time of Crisis. “States may request a waiver from the U.S. secretary of education and, if granted, could also impose greater funding reductions on school districts without losing federal stimulus aid.”