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'We just want to know what’s happening': Students push for clarity on CARES Act relief aid

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A student waits at UNC's financial aid office on April 26, 2018.

The University is beginning to release emergency funding from the federal coronavirus relief bill for students who have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, but some students have criticized the administration for moving too slowly to release funds and not being transparent about the process. 

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, passed by Congress in late March, included relief funding for higher education institutions. UNC received over $17 million from the bill, which allocates funds based on the number of Pell Grant recipients — a federal aid program for low-income students — and total full-time students at each institution.

On May 19, about a month after the University received funds from the CARES Act, students were formally notified about the opportunity for emergency funding. The announcement, which explained that students could apply for emergency funding from the CARES Act as well as the Carolina Student Impact Fund, came two days after Undergraduate Senator Lamar Richards sent a letter to the chancellor criticizing the University for not publicizing the funds and not moving quicker to release them.

“I think it's important for the University administration to realize that most of the students at Carolina learned of CARES Act funding, not from the University, but instead from news and social media sources or from their peers at neighboring institutions that had already sent out and depleted their CARES Act funds long before UNC even communicated it was in receipt of the funding,” Richards said in an email statement. 

N.C. State University notified its students of opportunities for CARES Act funding on April 30. As of May 12, N.C. State has distributed over $6 million to 3,435 students through CARES Act grants. 

Reeves Moseley, student body president, said in an email statement that although he agrees the CARES Act funding was not communicated as well as possible, emergency funding from other sources has been available to UNC students in the past few months. 

“I agree with Senator Richards’ sentiment that there needs to be more direct and transparent communication with the students,” he wrote. “However, I think that it is important to recognize that the administration is constantly working on funding and financial resources for students, and it is a gradual and continuous process. UNC was also able to support students early on with the Impact Fund and consider how it wants to prioritize CARES Act funding.” 

Jordan Johnson, a first-year Covenant Scholar, said she applied for emergency funding in April and received a grant for about $1,000 two weeks ago that did not indicate which fund it came from. She said she was not notified by the University about the opportunity for emergency funding, but instead found the application herself.

“There’s no reason they shouldn’t be reaching out to students and telling us about these things because these students need money,” she said. “We’re home, most people can’t work now, most people have families back home they might need to support, so you never really know what people are going through. And there’s no reason why they shouldn't email us — they email us about everything else.”

Rachelle Feldman, associate provost and director of the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, said that in the spring semester about 1,500 students were awarded $1.4 million in emergency funding, of which 900 students were funded through the Carolina Student Impact Fund.

Unlike the CARES Act, which is funded by the federal government and meant for students who experienced a disruption in their spring semester, the Student Impact Fund is established through private donors to the University and awards funding for special emergency student expenses, Feldman said. Now, students who are enrolled in summer classes can apply for up to $750 from this fund per session. 

Feldman said that funding from the CARES Act was more difficult to distribute because her office had to wait to receive guidance from the federal government. 

“It took a long time for the federal government to figure out what process they would be doing to get us that money,” Feldman said. 

Now, Feldman said that the largest CARES Act grants will go to Covenant Scholars and Pell Grant recipients to help them continue studies in the fall. To receive this funding, students must have completed their FAFSA and be Title IV eligible, meaning they must be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen. International students and DACA recipients will not be eligible — although they can receive emergency funding from some other University channels. 

Feldman said students who are enrolled in summer classes and eligible for summer emergency aid from the Impact Fund or CARES Act funds should expect to see deposits within a week or so from filing their applications. 

She also said eligible Covenant and Pell recipient students will automatically be awarded some CARES Act funds for the fall semester. Feldman said students will see these awards in July and should receive funds in their account in early August. 

Students can also apply for other emergency aid on the University’s COVID-19 Emergency Grant Funding webpage. 

Feldman said that she read Richards’ letter and felt that his main concern was a lack of communication, which she said her office is working to fix. 

“We really do care and want to help and we want to support students as best we can,” she said. “We know the needs are immediate, but also that the need in the fall will be greater than what we’ve seen in a long time due to changes in the economy. We’re glad that Carolina can help and we’ll get through it the best we can and I hope students will just be a little patient with us as we deal with more students than usual.” 

Feldman said her office is currently working on about 2,000 applications for emergency aid between the spring and summer, and has already received hundreds of applications for reconsideration of financial aid for the fall. 

Undergraduate Senator Collyn Smith said that he understands the University needs time to formulate these plans and process applications, but wishes they would be more transparent in the process. 

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“Students aren’t asking for all the answers at once,” he said. “We just want to know what’s happening and be involved with pieces of these conversations.”