Washington – The latest federal stimulus bill suspends payments on most student loans and provides state colleges with millions of dollars to blunt the coronavirus’ s economic blow. It is welcomed, but is not enough, advocates say.
Connecticut’s colleges and universities shut down campus classes in mid semester, shifting to online instruction. Some of them began emptying dorms as early as spring break and promised refunds to students for their unused dorm rooms and meal plans. Some schools have now agreed to provide those dorms to house hospital overflows and perhaps even first responders.
That upheaval of campus life has also created corresponding upheaval in the finances of Connecticut’s universities.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, aims to help colleges – as well as primary and secondary schools – meet those unexpected expenses.
But, while the $30 billion in aid to education will bring some relief, colleges and students need more, education advocates said, and they are likely to seek it when Congress drafts its next coronavirus bailout.
“This isn’t the last bus,” said Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education’s senior vice president for government and public affairs. The council calculated that the CARES Act contains about $14 billion for higher education institutions — far less than the $50 billion they requested in emergency aid.
“There is real money in this bill,” concedes Ben Barnes, the chief financial officer for Connecticut State Colleges and Universities. “The problem is, we don’t know how much we’re going to have to spend.”
The bill provides about $56 million for the state’s four-year and community colleges. The money will help the four-year colleges with the cost of returning payments for room and board and other fees for students who are now taking courses online. Barnes said the state colleges will be returning $24 million in refunds this week.
The refunds have been prorated, he said, and the average amount of the credit is $3,200.
In a letter sent to members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation last week, University of Connecticut President Thomas Katsouleas estimated there would be $29 million in losses due to student reimbursements, reduced international student enrollment and event cancellations.
At Yale University, students are also receiving prorated refunds for room and board. The university is continuing to provide food and housing for students who can’t find accommodations before the end of the semester For those who have to return home expectantly, Yale will foot the bill for their travel expenses.
The CARES Act also helps individual students. Those who dropped out of school because of the coronavirus crisis will not have to repay the federal government for the Pell grants they received for this term. Neither will this term count toward overall Pell grant eligibility for those who dropped out.
Grades for this term will not count toward the requirement that students maintain “satisfactory academic progress.” And students on work study programs will continue to receive pay even is their jobs have been lost due to the coronavirus crisis.
A pause, but not forgiveness, of student loans
The CARES Act’s aid to graduates will also have an impact.
It suspends payments on most federally backed student loans until September 30. After that date, payment suspension and the interest waiver will end, and borrowers will receive communications from their loan servicer about transitioning back into repayment.
The CARES Act also suspends all collections on defaulted student loans, ending, at least for several months, all wage garnishment, Social Security garnishments and tax refund offsets.
For qualifying borrowers, the CARES Act will pause student loan payments and collection efforts automatically.
The relief, however, does not cover any private education loans. Data shows nonfederal loans amount to about 17 percent of loans held by public and non-profit four-year college graduates.
While the suspension of payments helps in the short term, advocacy groups had wanted debt to be canceled permanently because many graduates will have a hard time making payments even after the crisis ends and the economy comes back to life.
Barnes is concerned that CSCU will lose money since the demand for summer courses has weakened.
He also worries about fall registration. “Even if things return to normal, I expect there’s not going to be a lot of interest in attending schools in person in the fall,” he said.
Katsouleas said if the COVID-19 virus extends into the fall, UConn could face $70 million in losses.
There’s also money in the CARES Act for UConn Health, where Katsouleas has estimated the coronavirus crisis will result in a $101 to $172 million loss.
The bill provides $100 billion to hospitals to provide reimbursement for expenses or lost revenues attributable to COVID-19. It also increases Medicaid and Medicare payments to hospitals. UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said she did not know how much UConn Health might receive, or when the funds might be available.
Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart said Yale Medicine will also seek grants from the $100 billion fund to compensate health care providers for unreimbursed costs of COVID-19 care.
“We hope that the funding [in the CARES Act] for purchases of personal protective equipment will help to solve the acute shortage of masks, face shields, gowns, and gloves, as well as ventilators, in Connecticut,” Peart said.
It’s time for UConn staff and administration to take voluntary pay cuts.
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