The nation’s most selective and richest universities are turning down millions in federal money meant to aid students whose lives have been upended by the coronavirus. They include Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Stanford.
The list is likely to grow. As one elite university goes, others often follow, and that seems especially likely given the political pressure colleges are facing this week. Kicking it all off: a factually incorrect statement by President Donald Trump.
Here is what happened:
First, the coronavirus slammed the nation. The nation’s universities were some of the first responders. They moved classes online and emptied campuses, issuing refunds for housing, meal plans and other campus-related costs. The changes have cost campuses millions of dollars, and they’ll be hit harder if students don’t return in the fall.
The changes came at a cost to college students, too. Many of them, often employed in face-to-face industries like retail or dining, were suddenly out of a job. Universities themselves often employed many students.
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Congress attempted to address some of that devastation via the $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus. It gave higher education about $13 billion to address the costs of online learning and for institutions to provide emergency aid to their students.
The Department of Education would distribute that money to colleges based on the number of full-time students on campus and those eligible for Pell Grants, federal scholarships for students from low-income families. At least half of the money would have to go to students to help them pay for things like food or housing.
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Harvard was eligible for $8.6 million, Penn $9.9 million, Princeton $2.4 million, Stanford $7.3 million and Yale $6.8 million. California Institute of Technology has also turned down its emergency aid, but it was only eligible for $908,000.
The colleges eligible to receive the most are large public institutions like Arizona State University, set to get roughly $64 million, Pennsylvania State University, roughly $55 million, and Rutgers, $54 million.
That didn’t stop some from asking why institutions such as Harvard — wealthy colleges with billions of dollars in endowments to help them weather financial calamity — were receiving these funds at all.
Endowments are meant to support universities for the long term. Most have limits on how much of their endowment can be spent, so returns on the investment continue to grow yearly. Donors can also limit how their gifts are spent. Harvard’s endowment is the largest in the country, measured at roughly $41 billion in 2019, before the stock market declined amid the coronavirus outbreak. For the same year, Yale’s endowment was about $30 billion and Stanford’s about $28 billion
The CARES Act, signed into law by Trump, didn’t limit which institutions would receive money based on their wealth. And in an April 9 letter to higher education leaders, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos advised if a college’s students weren’t struggling financially, administrators should consider “giving your allocation to those institutions within your state or region that might have significant need.”
But Trump called out wealthy colleges on Tuesday when he implied, incorrectly, that Harvard had received federal money meant for small businesses.
Even though Harvard hadn’t taken that small-business money, the college’s receipt of any federal aid was officially a political issue.
DeVos followed with a statement of her own. She said wealthy colleges that don’t primarily serve students from low-income backgrounds didn’t need or deserve the taxpayer money. She also changed course from her April 9 letter: Instead of directing their allotments to needier universities, she said some colleges shouldn’t even ask for their allotments in the first place.
Republican lawmakers also chimed in:
2 weeks ago, I asked the Trump Administration to consider rescinding funding for wasteful spending in the CARES Act.
— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) April 22, 2020
I will introduce legislation to bar the Department of Ed from giving federal relief funds to universities with massive endowments UNLESS and UNTIL those universities actually spend some of those endowments to help their students and cover costs of this emergency
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) April 22, 2020
By Wednesday afternoon, Harvard, which had initially said it would direct all of its CARES Act money to its students, had reversed course. In a statement, the university referenced political pressure as a motivator in its decision to decline CARES funds — and warned against jeopardizing aid to needy students and colleges.
“The intense focus by politicians and others on Harvard in connection with this program may undermine participation in a relief effort that Congress created and the President signed into law for the purpose of helping students and institutions whose financial challenges in the coming months may be most severe,” Harvard said.
Yale, Princeton and Penn declined CARES Act money shortly afterward. (Stanford said it had informed the Education Department on Monday of its decision to turn down the money.) Harvard, Penn, Stanford and Yale have all noted they expect to face budget crunches because of the coronavirus, but all have said they will continue providing their students with financial support.
It remains to be seen which other universities will follow suit. While most universities with large endowments are private entities, several public institutions like the University of Texas System, the University of Michigan and the University of California system also have billions of dollars in their endowments.
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Some well-off universities like Cornell and the University of Notre Dame are so far planning to receive their CARES Act money, but have pledged to give all of it to students, instead of keeping some of it to offset the costs of online education.
Wealthy universities have been receiving aid from the federal government for decades, in the form of student financial aid and research grants. In the 2018-19 academic year alone, the government issued roughly $28 billion in federal Pell Grants to 6.8 million students at rich and poor institutions across the country. About 17% of Harvard’s undergraduate class qualifies for these grants.
As for colleges counting on the money from the CARES Act, it has been slow to arrive, leaving needy students without much-needed aid. This week, the Education Department issued guidance prohibiting colleges from giving the money to undocumented immigrants, recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, international students and other students who are not eligible for federal financial aid.
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus emergency grants: Harvard, elite colleges turn down money