Coronavirus grants paid to college students across the state this year have differed in amounts and the speed of delivery, with universities responding differently to U.S. Department of Education guidance that priority be given to students with “exceptional” need.
While some schools rushed to deliver the federal aid, others developed grant tiers aimed at funnelling more dollars to those with fewer financial resources. The coronavirus grant aid flowing to college students can be used for such things as living expenses related to schooling as well as other costs.
Colleges will continue to make decisions affecting how and when students benefit from millions in remaining unspent federal relief funds.
The U.S. Department of Education in a March 19 announcement emphasized that schools can use the money to cover student account balances accrued during the pandemic, stating that college leaders have “flexibility on the use of funds.”
It’s so far unclear how many colleges in Arkansas will use federal dollars to settle up student accounts. Colleges stated to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that they continue to review the recent federal guidance.
Such decisions should be made quickly to help students plan out their futures, said Douglas Webber, a Temple University associate professor of economics who studies higher-education finance.
Based on their financial resources, “people make decisions — big decisions — about what jobs to take and where to live,” Webber said, adding that, “the earlier you give people clarity on their financial status, the more that students are going to be able to make informed decisions about what their resources are.”
In particular, using federal dollars to get students a fresh start on their account balances could help them avoid the roadblocks associated with unpaid accounts, Webber said.
“It’s potentially one of the most impactful ways that schools could spend that money, from the perspective of helping students,” Webber said. “There are many universities that will withhold diplomas if you have any balance on your account.”
EMERGENCY GRANT AID
Last year, colleges and universities disbursed grants provided through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The state’s four largest universities — the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas State University, the University of Central Arkansas and Arkansas Tech University — delivered a total of more than $20.7 million in CARES Act grants to students, while millions more went to students at other schools.
Colleges also received institutional support through the federal measure, money to help with pandemic-related expenses. Some of this institutional grant aid covered refunds paid to students because of dorm closures during the first wave of the pandemic. The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith opted to use $435,000 of the funds on direct student aid, a spokeswoman said.
Federal lawmakers in December approved a new round of relief funds that included more money for student grants and institutional aid. The state Division of Higher Education estimated in January that colleges were set to receive about $191 million from these funds, including about $58 million for direct payments to students.
The U.S. Department of Education has described a “minimum ‘floor'” for direct student grants and overall greater flexibility for colleges in using these funds.
Students at Harding University received their grants in January, about a month after President Donald Trump signed into law the coronavirus relief package.
A total of 1,464 students at the Christian university in Searcy — the state’s largest private university — received either $1,500 or $800 grants by Jan. 26. Harding reported that as of that date, it had disbursed the entirety of its $1.6 million federal student aid from the December relief package.
The University of Central Arkansas began distributing grants in February, according to communication to students, and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith began disbursing grants on Feb. 11, a spokeswoman said.
Other college students have waited longer to receive their grants.
Arkansas Tech University had disbursed about $2.1 million to 2,941 students as of March 22, a spokesman said. The university’s disbursement procedures required students to apply for the grants.
Based on data from the Higher Education Division, Arkansas Tech received about $3.5 million in emergency student aid as its “minimum ‘floor'” amount to disburse, meaning that as much as 42% remained undelivered as of March 22.
The state’s two largest universities — the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and Arkansas State University — had not distributed the grants until this month.
Schools responded differently to guidance for how colleges should use the money from the December relief package, known as the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.
“Unlike the CARES Act, the [December package] requires that institutions prioritize students with exceptional need, such as students who receive Pell Grants, in awarding financial aid grants to students. However, students do not need to be only Pell recipients or students who are eligible for Pell grants,” stated the U.S. Department of Education guidance to schools.
Pell grants are a type of federal financial aid reserved for students with exceptional need.
UA on March 10 distributed about $7.7 million in emergency student aid, said Suzanne McCray, the university’s vice provost for enrollment management.
UA directed the money to students with financial need, creating three tiers of grants based on Pell grant criteria along with what’s known as a student’s expected family contribution toward paying for college.
Pell grant recipients at the Fayetteville campus received grants of $1,125. Students with an “expected family contribution” of up to $10,000 received $975 grants, while those with an expected family contribution ranging from $10,001 to $15,000 received $825.
NUMBER OF AWARDS
Grant awards went to 7,442 UA students on March 10, McCray said. The total is fewer than the more than 14,100 UA students who received CARES Act grants last year.
Taking a different approach, ASU Chancellor Kelly Damphousse earlier this month in a message to campus described criteria that allows for most students to receive some grant aid.
Damphousse in a message dated March 18 told students that more than $4.6 million would be distributed to students beginning that week, with the university creating six grant tiers.
The top individual award disbursed by ASU of $700 is for Pell-eligible full-time students, while the award is $500 for full-time students not eligible for a Pell grant. Smaller grants are available for part-time students and those pursuing online-only academic programs.
“There is no perfect way to develop a rubric like this,” Damphousse said in his March 18 message. “The easiest thing would be to give each student the same amount of money, but that would not comply with our interpretation of the Department of Education guidance.”
Bill Smith, an ASU spokesman, said Thursday that more than 12,000 students had received the aid. Despite ASU having a total enrollment of about 13,000 — less than half of UA’s total enrollment of about 27,500 students — more students on the Jonesboro campus have gotten grants than at UA, though for smaller amounts.
The awards are not available to all students. Damphousse in his campus message stated that international students as well as students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status are ineligible for this recent round of grants.
McCray said that rather than a campus announcement, UA opted to email students who had not completed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the application to receive the most common forms of federal financial aid.
Completion of an application is an eligibility requirement for the UA disbursements, McCray said, adding that the emails led to 56 additional students completing the forms.
“We were working to get these funds to students with need as quickly as we possibly could, and this was the fastest and most effective way to do so,” McCray said.
The post “New aid flowing to state students” Was originally published on www.arkansasonline.com