“It’s a lot to process,” said Escamilla, a 20-year-old behavioral and social sciences major at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. “I’ve been trying not to think about the things I need to pay for. . . . I’m healthy, and that’s the most important thing, but it’s been tough.”
The novel coronavirus pandemic has left college students from low-income families facing further financial insecurity, threatening not just their educations but also their ability to meet basic needs. They are among the millions of Americans who have been laid off or furloughed. Turning to Mom and Dad is not an option. And the federal government’s $2 trillion aid package offers little hope for direct help, because students whose parents claim them as dependents on their taxes don’t qualify for relief checks.
Congress did earmark nearly $7 billion for emergency grants to college students, but schools, tasked with disbursing that aid, have been awaiting guidance from the Education Department about how the funding will be allocated and how it can be used. Policymakers and higher-education groups urged Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to take action as students bombarded schools with requests for help.
“The response from the administration has been . . . hang tight. Students can’t hang tight if landlords are still collecting rent. Groceries are not free,” said Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher-education policy at the nonprofit Education Trust. “There isn’t a sense of urgency.”
This week, the Education Department informed college presidents that the money would be immediately available once they sign an agreement to comply with the relief bill. The Cares Act directs schools to give students money to cover expenses such as food, housing, technology, child care and health care, but the legislation left it to the Education Department to flesh out the terms. Now the department is leaving it up to schools.
Nearly 5,000 colleges and universities will benefit from the stimulus funding. Public institutions will receive the most, $4.5 billion, while private, nonprofit schools will get about $1.2 billion. For-profit schools will receive more than $500 million, according to the Education Department.
Congress set aside the most money for colleges with high proportions of students receiving Pell Grants, federal aid for those with low incomes. That should ensure that the neediest students receive help, but it’s entirely up to schools to decide who qualifies and for how much.
Colleges and universities will have tremendous discretion in awarding grants. Each institution can develop its own system and process for determining how to disburse the money. The only requirement is that the funds be used to cover expenses related to the disruption of campus operations because of the coronavirus.
Before this week’s announcement, advocates worried that the grants would be limited to students who are eligible to receive federal student aid, which would have shut out undocumented students and others without access to federal aid. But schools will have the option of helping students such as Escamilla, who was born in Mexico and receives immigration benefits under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program for immigrants brought to the United States as children. DACA recipients are ineligible for federal student aid.
“We’re talking tens of thousands of students in our district. They’re the most vulnerable,” said Francisco C. Rodriguez, chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District, which includes Escamilla’s school and eight others and serves a large number of undocumented students. “Food insecurity . . . and homelessness among our students continues to be pervasive and has only been exacerbated by covid,” he said, referring to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
While they have waited for federal money to be released, colleges and universities have tried to help students on their own, relying on donations and reserves that are stretched thin.
Los Angeles’s community colleges are connecting students in need to state and local resources for help with food and housing. The schools also have been supplying refurbished laptops to students since moving classes online. And a $150,000 donation from grocery chain Kroger is helping the district provide $50 gift cards to students as the closure of campus food pantries threatens to leave many hungry.
The University of Maryland at College Park is calling on its community to support its Student Crisis Fund, with grant requests spiking from three a week to 50 a day.
Towson University, a public university outside of Baltimore, has made $194,000 available for student emergencies, after digging into institutional funds; soliciting donations from faculty members, staff members and alumni; and releasing unrestricted money from its foundation account. Nearly 200 students have asked for help. Towson this week started disbursing money for food, housing, technology and transportation costs.
Wanderly Vargas, 21, is a Towson senior who lived and worked on campus. Two months before graduation, he lost his job, left his dorm and returned home to Prince George’s County to live with his parents and 12-year-old brother.
“I was spiraling downward really fast,” the psychology major said. “Usually I’m the type of person who has a plan set, and I had no plan.”
Vargas has since been rehired to work remotely, but his hours in the Student Success Programs office have been cut in half. And his parents need help. His father was laid off from his construction job, and his mother has been furloughed from her position in a neighboring school district. Vargas has asked Towson to help pay bills.
“I’m grateful that the university was watching out for the students,” Vargas said.
Escamilla is relying on savings to make it through the month. Her parents, who live in Alabama, are in no position to help. Although her father is still working a few hours at a restaurant, her mother lost her job as a school janitor.
“They can’t really help me financially,” Escamilla said. “I have two younger siblings that both need computers and assistance now that school has [gone] online.”
Her DACA work permit made it easier for Escamilla to get her job and pay for college. It may also help her survive if her manager doesn’t call soon: California is one of a few states that allows DACA beneficiaries to file for unemployment. But like a lot of college students, she’s also hoping the federal aid comes through soon.