Emerson CARES act funds, an essential pandemic-era lifeline for students, running out

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Media: Diana Bravo

The Office of Financial Aid in the Union Bank Building.

By Dana Gerber, Deputy News Editor

Emerson has run through almost 90 percent of the $1.3 million in federal assistance it received for emergency student grant funds, which has helped 784 students pay for expenses like food and rent since April. 

For some students, receiving funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act during the pandemic has been an essential lifeline. Sophomore Madison Wicker applied for CARES Act funding in early October and received a direct deposit of $2,000 within a few weeks. Wicker, also a cashier at the Thinking Cup, said she is putting the money toward an apartment rental starting in the winter. 

“I’m a first-generation, low-income [student], so money is precious,” she said. “As much as I have my gripes with Emerson College and as much as I wish I could go here for like three dollars…I feel that they very much pulled through for me, in this instance.” 

To date, the college has allocated $1.1 million of the $1.3 million designated for students from the CARES Act, passed by the Senate in late March. The other half of Emerson’s CARES act funds was used to help offset the cost of room and board refunds after students were sent home in March

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The $2.2 trillion federal bill allotted $14 billion to the Office of Postsecondary Education in the form of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, meant to help colleges alleviate the economic hardship brought about by the pandemic. 

There are approximately 2,635 students eligible to receive CARES Act funds, according to the college’s website. To determine eligibility, students are subject to various federal regulations under Section 484 in the Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965. One requirement is that students must file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to receive CARES Act funding, meaning international students are not eligible. 

Students also have to be enrolled in a program that was not online and/or low-residency prior to COVID-19, and be “maintaining satisfactory progress” toward their degree. In addition to currently enrolled students, certain undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in the spring 2020 semester are also eligible to receive funding.

Some students have reapplied and received multiple grants, Director of Financial Aid Angela Grant said in an interview.

“I’m still working through applications, trying to make sure that I give it to the people who need it the most, obviously,” Grant said. “So far, we’ve been doing a pretty good job making sure everybody gets some support.”

To apply for CARES Act money, students fill out a short online application, which asks them to describe the expenses for which they need the funds. The funds cannot be used for tuition costs. 

In the form, students can submit bills or receipts to demonstrate their expenses and then estimate how much money they require. Grants range from $100 to $6,000 and are made via direct deposit.

Grant said the Office of Financial Aid is still sifting through applications, trying to get every applicant a decision within two weeks. 

“We’ve been trying to be really on top of that, and making sure it gets done,” she said. “It’s a large part of what my office does right now.”

Wicker said that she was concerned about continuing her education at Emerson after this semester, but that the extra funds gave her some stability. 

“The CARES Act really gave me a sense of security that I’m guaranteed at least another semester here because I can afford a place to live,” she said.

Senior Kayla Randolph said that while she said she was skeptical while filling out the application, she received $1,000 in July while living at home with her family in Connecticut and transferred the funds into her savings account.

“We’re a family that lives paycheck to paycheck, so whenever there was a struggle we would take money out for food, or to pay for doctor’s appointments,” she said. “It’s hard to think about how much that we got compared to how much a college experience costs as a whole, but I know they weren’t intended to weigh each other out. But it did help in those moments where we didn’t have money for gas or we didn’t have money for groceries and we had this little reserve to dip into when we needed it.” 

While Wicker received her funds within a few weeks, there are factors that can cause a delay in funding. The most common application delay, Grant said, is when a student has to clarify what their specific expenses are. Students who have not already also must file a FAFSA to be eligible to receive the money, which Grant said can also delay funding. 

Randolph plans to study remotely at home for her final semester and to pursue her master’s degree to save money on living expenses, so this is her last semester on the Boston campus.

“Every little bit helps,” she said. “Everything’s a little reassuring.” 

International students, students who may not be able to file a FAFSA, and those who get rejected for CARES Act funds can apply to receive money through the Student Assistance Fund under the Office of Student Success. The Student Assistance Fund, which awards amounts donated by community members ranging from $10 to a few hundred dollars, does not have to abide by federal regulations like CARES Act funds, though the amounts still cannot be used toward tuition. 

Emerson continues to promote the CARES Act grants through social media and emails, which Grant said often spurs bouts of applications. Though she anticipates the funds will run out by winter break, she doesn’t expect this to be the end of the college’s financial assistance to students in need. 

“When the CARES Act funds inevitably run out…we will have to work out something else,” she said. 

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