Op-Ed: How UConn knowingly and deliberately chose to inequitably distribute CARES Act Emergency Grants

By Mary Bugbee, PhD student in Anthropology with Jordan McMillan (PhD candidate in Sociology and President of the Graduate Employee Union) & William Biel (PhD candidate in Medieval Studies)

This is the saga of how the University ignored and suppressed student demands for more equitable distribution of COVID-19 federal aid. Based on how the following events unfolded, we believe the university intentionally shut out many eligible students from aid. Though we can only speculate about the motives, the University clearly acted in a way that did not prioritize student welfare in its distribution policy. 

On April 29th, 2020, the University sent out an email to all students with information about the $10.7 million in CARES Act funds they received from the federal government to distribute as no-strings attached, emergency grants to UConn students. The email implied that only students who had already submitted a 2019-2020 FAFSA would be eligible for these grants, and that the FAFSA alone would determine aid amount.

We were dumbfounded. The 2019-2020 FAFSA is based on a student’s 2017 tax information. How would this information be helpful for determining the neediest students right now amidst an unprecedented health and economic crisis? Further, there are many students who don’t file FAFSAs, such as graduate assistants who have tuition waivers and receive a modest stipend, and therefore don’t take out loans (but often have to work additional jobs to make ends meet). Per federal guidelines, students who were eligible to file FAFSAs, but had not already, were still eligible for CARES Act aid. Why wasn’t the University communicating this to its students? Universities actually possess a great deal of latitude in how they can distribute CARES Act grants to students, and the law does not require FAFSA to be the sole determining factor.

One of the authors, Mary Bugbee, tweeted about the inequity in the University policy and a reporter from WNPR picked up the issue. He asked President Katsouleas about the tweet in a live interview (skip to 12:22 to listen to the relevant segment). The President stated that the author of the tweet was misinformed, and anyone could file a FAFSA “today” and still be eligible. We, and our graduate student colleagues, remained perplexed and frustrated. Were they intentionally making information difficult to find? Were they trying to discourage new applicants? We drafted a letter with a list of demands, calling for increased transparency about the distribution of funds, and clear communication on eligibility and the application process. We sent the letter to UConn’s CFO Scott Jordan and the Vice President for Enrollment Planning and Management, Nathan Fuerst (the administrators who had distributed the initial April 29th notification about CARES Act grants). It had 60 signatures then, and has collected more since. 

On Monday, May 4, two of the authors (Mary Bugbee and Jordan McMillan) participated in a video call with Nathan Fuerst. We reiterated the concerns expressed in the letter and made specific suggestions for how the University could still do right by its students. Once we realized that the University was going to distribute aid according to its flawed 2019-2020 FAFSA formula no matter what, our biggest demand was that the University provide clear communication to all students on how they could access CARES Act funds. This did not occur. On May 5, the Graduate School notified students on its listserv about CARES Act grants. We followed up with Fuerst to emphasize this wasn’t only a graduate student issue, and that all students needed to be informed. No email to the student body, like the original we received on April 29th in which “CARES Act” was in the subject line, was sent out. On May 11, the Financial Aid office published an informative web page for students with questions about CARES Act grants (based on some suggestions we made to Fuerst in the meeting). On close inspection, we discovered inconsistencies within the FAQs and asked for clarification. Meanwhile, the Financial Aid office staff were providing conflicting information to students trying to access aid.

As it turns out, the University had a deadline in place for receiving the 2019-2020 FAFSA. This deadline was May 4, but was not announced to the students until May 11, when it was published on a web page linked through a University Coronavirus update email. Based on the new information, students who were not eligible for the first round of CARES Act grants because the University hadn’t received their FAFSA on time must now submit an application for aid that opened May 14th. Less than 6% of the original $10.7 million is available to students applying in the second round. This money is not just for students who filed a FAFSA “late,” but also for students who were not eligible for funding in the first round based on their 2019-2020 FAFSA, but have had a change in financial circumstances. Arguably, no one’s current financial circumstances are reflected on their 2019-2020 or even 2020-2021 FAFSA, and under the current distribution policy, many who have the greatest need did not receive anything at all. Since May 1, the University was aware of our demands, and even signaled they were listening. Yet, they completely blew past us and imposed a deadline without communicating this to anyone until after the fact. 

We believe the University needs to be held accountable, and make whole all the students whom they shut out from CARES Act grants through their inequitable policies and negligent communication. As the pandemic continues to ravage our state and our community, the University will need to improve its crisis response to ensure that the wellbeing of students and workers are placed at the center of its policies and decisions. This means administrators need to listen to the student body, listen to workers, and incorporate our voices into policies. If the University continues to steamroll students and workers in its policy-making and decision-making processes with an agenda that places “revenue” and “long-term viability” (which we all know are code-words for top-down austerity measures) above the humans that keep this place running, this institution will continue to become a shell of what it could be.

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