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Here's what you need to know about CARES Act emergency aid for UNC students

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A peer counselor at the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid gives financial advice to an incoming transfer student. Students with work study jobs are eligible for SNAP benefits, but few UNC students use the program. 

In May, the University announced plans to begin releasing emergency funding from the CARES Act to students with a demonstrated need for aid. In the months since then, confusion has spread throughout the student body about the University's process to do so. In particular, students pointed to a lack of timeliness in awarding the money, lack of clear communication over who would be awarded the money and a lack of transparency in how the money has been awarded for the spring, summer and fall semesters. 

First off, what is the CARES Act?

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was a bill passed by Congress in March to provide relief to American citizens and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. That act set up the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which provides money to universities across the country to award emergency financial aid grants to students.

How much money has been awarded?

According to UNC's COVID-19 Emergency Funding FAQ website, as of July 20, the University has awarded $8,646,087 of the $8,647,589 it was provided by the federal government to give to students in emergency grants.The money now will show up in students' revised financial aid packages. 

The University also received an additional $8.6 million from the HEERF to cover institutional costs. That money could be used for paying the University back in case it has to offer full refunds for tuition or housing, buying new technology to facilitate online teaching, or it can also be awarded to students in additional grants, according to a list of FAQs by the U.S. Department of Education.

Because of the additional financial need of UNC students, the University has allocated $2.5 million from this second source of money to give students emergency grants, according to UNC Media Relations. UNC has awarded $365,541 of that $2.5 million as of July 20, for a total of $9,011,628 given out in emergency grants to 3,957 students. 

Why aid packages and not checks/direct deposits? 

The CARES Act is limited in what it can be used for. Rachelle Feldman, associate provost and director of the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, said the University identified the fall semester as the time when students would need the most aid. 

"We saw that a lot of the need in the fall was going to come from parents who had lost jobs or students, graduate students or independent students who had lost employment, maybe a spouse who lost employment," Feldman said. 

She said some of those needs could not be met through the CARES Act and had to be met through other funds.

"We just thought it was so important that students be able to afford the fall and persist in the fall," Feldman said. "Since the amounts that we are projecting, and still projecting, (show) that students' need far exceeded our CARES Act allocation, we thought it was the smartest thing, the best thing for students to use the money in the fall, when they weren't already funded up to this additional need." 

Other UNC System schools, like N.C. State University and UNC-Charlotte, gave out a large portion of their CARES Act money earlier in the spring and summer.

Why did I get CARES Act money in my financial aid package despite not applying?

Unlike in the spring and summer, when students had to apply to receive emergency grant funding, the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid has stated that to ensure students receive CARES Act grants by the beginning of the fall semester, the Office will be awarding funds to eligible students without an additional application. Undergraduates who are eligible include Carolina Covenant scholars, Pell Grant recipients or any student who receives over $1,000 in need-based University grants.

According to the University's FAQ website, UNC is also awarding CARES Act funds to graduate and professional students, in addition to other undergraduate students who demonstrate extraordinary need. Students who did not qualify earlier for funding but whose circumstances have changed can fill out appeals for need-based aid to the Office.

What about non-CARES Act funding?

UNC's FAQ page on CARES Act funding states that the federal government prohibits funds from being given for certain financial needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, like that arising from loss of employment or income. Funding is only to be used for students who were enrolled in "post-secondary education" in the spring, when campus functions were disrupted, and only for pandemic-related needs. 

Feldman said this could take the form of needing money to move in the spring when dorms were closed to students, or needing new technology to complete schoolwork remotely.

In March, UNC set up the Carolina Student Impact Fund to cover the needs of students impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the costs students might incur that the CARES Act can't be used for, like providing funding after a student lost their job, are covered by the fund. 

Some students saw in the spring that their applications for emergency grants that were initially given through the Impact Fund were later changed to be from the CARES Act. Feldman said these were retroactively funded through the CARES Act if the student was eligible. 

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Why have some grants decreased while total aid increased?

While all students who receive CARES Act money should see a total increase in their financial aid package, they may also see a decrease in University grants. Feldman said this is because the University is giving CARES Act funding where it can, and then using the more flexible grant money to help fund other students. 

"The University's approach has been, 'Let's pool all the resources we can find towards meeting student needs and for those students who are eligible for the CARES money, let's give them CARES money,'" Feldman said. "'And for students who are not, let's give them other money and let's make sure we have some kind of money for the things CARES can't be used for, and let's use it all in a holistic way.' It's why we had an emergency grant application and not a CARES Act application, because not all of those were funded through CARES money."

Over the past few weeks, students have taken to social media to express concerns about how UNC has been allocating CARES Act funding. A petition, which gained over 1,200 signatures, alleged that the University had not been redistributing the grants it previously gave students, but was instead using the CARES Act as a cost-saving measure. 

Feldman insists this is not the case, and that the University is not allowed to use the money to pay itself back for grants.  

"We're using that money to help students with funds that we can't use CARES money for," she said. "We're using it for all the need analysis appeals, which are mostly loss of jobs; we have (had) hundreds of them come in already that we're still working it through." 

Why is this all taking so long?

Part of the confusion, Feldman said, is a result of the University trying to recalculate students' financial aid over the course of a few weeks when the process normally takes from October to April, and that the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid is still working on allocating aid. As a result, some UNC students have expressed that the process has been neither quick nor transparent when compared to other UNC System institutions, whose students were receiving grants in May. 

Since students took to social media to express these concerns, UNC's CARES Act FAQ page has been updated to include information about how and when students are receiving their grant funds. 

When am I getting my grant funds?

The funds show up in students' financial aid packages. Feldman said those funds will be automatically refunded to students when the refunds are processed in August and will not directly apply to their bill like other financial aid money does. If a student receives $2,000 in a CARES Act grant, for example, their refund will include that $2,000 and will not automatically take out $2,000 from their semester bill. 

Why were Carolina Covenant scholars asked to take out loans over the summer if they applied for emergency funding?

Several Carolina Covenant scholars encountered an issue during the summer where they were told they would not be eligible for a CARES Act grant if they had not previously exhausted other financial aid options, which included taking out loans. While the Carolina Covenant program aims to provide students the opportunity to attend and graduate from UNC without taking on debt or taking out loans, Feldman says that the program is not funded during the summer. 

As a result, Covenant scholars who took summer classes were requesting money for things that would normally have been covered during the fall and spring. Feldman said the University doesn't get state support for summer tuition grants, and that because summer semester is optional, students were asked to take out loans before they received grant aid, so that most of the money from the CARES Act could be allocated to students in the fall.

What's happening with work-study? 

The amount of work-study jobs available for students is expected to decrease for the fall semester as a result of the pandemic. As a result, Feldman said, the CARES Act money is being used for the students with the most need, like Covenant scholars or Pell Grant recipients. 

Feldman said some students would see a reduction in their work-study grants, which would be replaced by a CARES Act grant. That way, students with the most need could be ensured that they would receive their money without necessarily worrying about finding a work-study job, when they may potentially be more difficult to find this fall. Additionally, that work-study money would be able to go to other students in the form of financial aid, she said.

When will this all be done?

Most of the CARES Act money that is set to be given away in the form of emergency grants has been allocated, and students should see that reflected in their updated financial aid packages, Feldman said. The Office of Scholarships and Student Aid is still working to allocate the remaining funds that UNC set aside from the HEERF to cover institutional costs, which should now be roughly $2.2 million. This process will continue to happen through the start of the school year, she said. 

Additionally, the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid is still working on processing the needs analysis appeals that students filled out to update their financial aid in the event of special circumstances, as well as money students are asking for to cover things like a change in health insurance or housing. 

"We really appreciate that students have been super patient with us," Feldman said. "Just know we're trying our best."