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Carleton to receive over $1 million from Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, half to be spent on financial aid emergency grants

Carleton is set to be awarded $1,168,048 from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) as part of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), signed into law on March 27, 2020. At least half of this award—$584,024—must be used for direct emergency grants to students while the remaining half may cover more flexible institutional costs. 

Institutions must apply for the two halves of the award separately. Some elite institutions, such as Harvard University, have announced that they will not take this federal funding after backlash over their already large endowments. At press time, Carleton has submitted its application for the student grants portion of the fund and is expected to apply for the institutional portion within the coming weeks. Carleton has not settled on a plan to distribute the emergency grant money, though an application process for students is anticipated.

School eligibility and application

To determine the amount schools receive from HEERF, the Department of Education (DOE) used a formula that primarily takes into account each school’s number of full-time students who are Pell-eligible. Pell Grants are awarded by the federal government to undergraduate students who demonstrate a high level of unmet financial need. Generally, most Pell Grants are awarded to students whose family’s total income is below $20,000. At a lesser weight, the formula also includes the school’s total population.

“It’s actually a pretty good approach because they’re making sure that the biggest, richest schools that don’t have much real need for this sort of funding aren’t going to get more than their fair share,” said Christopher Tassava, Carleton’s Grants Office Directory. “And then the majority of this funding is going to go to the schools where they have the students who have the greatest need.” 

Carleton’s allocation appears in line with that of its peer institutions.  St. Olaf College, for example, will net $2,167,063 in total while Pomona College will receive $1,285,644.

To receive their allocated funds, institutions must complete a brief, two-page application for each portion—the student grants and institutional costs—of the funds, which Tassava calls “astonishingly simple” compared to typical federal grant applications. The deadline to apply for funding is September 20, 2020, while the deadline to spend the money will be September 20, 2021.

Carleton’s student grants application was completed Tuesday, April 28, and is currently pending approval. 

While the applications have been open for several weeks now, Carleton has only just applied for the student half and is holding off on the institutional portion to discuss and plan out spending. 

“The amount of money is significant and we want to be sure, before we apply and commit ourselves to spending it a certain way, that we know exactly what we’re going to do,” Tassava explained. “Carleton just takes a very methodical approach to these kinds of things.” 

A source of uncertainty for colleges is the lack of concrete guidelines regarding how institutions will be required to report their spending from the DOE. An FAQ released by the DOE states that colleges will be expected to file “how grants were distributed to students, how the amount of each grant was calculated, and any instructions or directions that the institution gave to students about the grant,” but none of this documentation has been described in detail.

According to Fred Rogers, this lack of clarity leaves many colleges to devise their own record-keeping methods. “A year from now or later, there’ll be audits,” said Rogers. “We’re trying to be very careful to make sure we can document this in a complete way that’ll be satisfactory for subsequent review and audit.”

Direct student support

Institutions are expected to put at least half of their CARES money toward student emergency grants, which may be paid through checks, electronic transfer payments, debit cards, and payment apps. These payments must be made directly to students and cannot be used to reimburse the College for previous expenses.

Prior to the CARES Act, the College had already been providing direct support to students impacted by COVID-19 through the Emergency Fund in the Dean of Students Office. The College cannot use the grants portion of the new federal funding to reimburse themselves for refunds and aid they have already provided to students. 

While some schools plan to divide the new grant money equally among students, Tassava notes that Carleton wants to do “something a little more thoughtful and try and put more of the funding into the hands of the students who need it the most.” Students will be expected to fill out some type of application to determine need, which is being discussed by the Dean of Students Office and the Student Financial Services Office, according to Rogers.

Additionally, the College intends to account for students who are ineligible for federal financial aid—including, but not limited to undocumented, international, and DACA students—and therefore not be permitted to recieve funds from this act.

“The college’s point of view will be to try and support the entire student body regardless of those things,” said Rogers. “We can’t use these federal funds for that, so we have to figure out other ways to do that.”

“I think we’re going to have more support for students than is available under the first half of this grant,” he added.

Institutional funds

Schools will have much more flexibility with institutional half of the CARES money, which can be distributed to students as aid or help cover other pandemic-related costs. This includes, but is not limited to, providing technology for students and faculty, software, room and board refunds, etc.

At press time, the college has incurred an approximately $2 million loss in response to the pandemic. About $9.9 million was lost in revenue, due mainly to the loss of room and board fees and the fact that Carleton did not adjust financial aid grants after students left campus. High early graduation rates contributed to this loss as well. Additionally, there were about $7.9 million expense savings in the budget due to lower operating costs related to travel budgets and dining costs. According to Rogers, it is unclear how much of the $584,024 that Carleton will receive to address institutional costs will directly support this deficit.

“It’s an accounting nuance,” said Rogers. “We’re still incurring new expenses for supporting students.”

One example is shipping seniors’ belongings—much of which was left in dorm rooms when students left for Spring break—back to them.

“We’re not asking them to come back to campus, and we’d agree that we’ll just do that at a cost to the College,” said Rogers.

As for covering the rest of the deficit, Rogers noted that Carleton is doing “the equivalent of what a person would do.”

“It’ll be coming out of savings and reserves,” he said. “We will end the year with a deficit, and we would have to take that from reserves or savings from prior years.”

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