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Aren’t We All in This Together? College Students Told Hell No

In a stormy week of denunciation and discrimination, the Trump administration sent a blaring announcement to America’s college students: you shall not be in this together.

Everything now depends upon college students resolving to believe different.

Wedges of denunciation and discrimination were hammered in this week, beginning Monday morning with a Huffington Post headline that read, “Harvard, America’s Richest University, Grabs Nearly $9 Million In Taxpayer CARES Aid.”

The word “grabs” gave an impression that Harvard made some special effort to secure its share of a $12.5 billion relief package for higher education that was included in the CARES Act, signed into law Mar. 27.

In fact, as Harvard attempted to explain for about a day, the money was allocated by a US Department of Education (ED) formula that proportioned the aid across 5,000 campuses according to a broad estimation of student financial need–-a formula that resulted in 350 campuses assigned more money than Harvard.

While the HuffPo column correctly reported that at least half of the COVID-19 relief money to Harvard “must be reserved for emergency financial grants to students”–-as mandated by the CARES Act for every campus–the column also speculated that “at least some of that money, which could be used to cover tuition payments and course materials, would also end up in Harvard coffers.”

The First Wedge: Resentment

Harvard attempted to push back the tide of resentment, beginning with a Monday evening statement to the Boston Herald that, “Harvard is actually allocating 100 percent of the funds to financial assistance for students to meet their urgent needs in the face of this pandemic.”

But the drumbeat of denunciation was joined by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and President Donald J. Trump (at a pandemic briefing, no less), forcing Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale to announce that their students would not be taking the money that Congress wanted them to have.

While the resentment of the HuffyPo and the Article Two bullies might be defended as an attempt to keep the rich from getting richer during the pandemic, they chose a cruel line to draw against emergency aid to students. As if we don’t see what is happening with banks, bond holders, hedge funds, and business owners?

A financial-aid fact sheet at Harvard’s web site states that 55 percent of undergraduates receive needs-based Harvard scholarships. 20 percent of Harvard parents have total incomes less than $65,000, two-thirds of students work during the academic year, and 17 percent of about 6,600 undergraduate students are Pell Grant recipients who undergo rigorous means testing, federally regulated under provisions commonly known as Title IV.

By yanking back federal emergency relief from such students, the White House and its allies spiked an ugly but effective wedge against possibilities of cross-campus student solidarity. The Trump instinct for divide and conquer was achieved, once again, with astonishing speed and finality.

Another Week in Trump’s America

For a week that began with a question that no headline was asking–where the heck is that student relief money already?–the Monday morning spin achieved remarkable suspicion and resentment, practically justifying the administration’s slow rolling of emergency student relief in the first place.

Although ED promised “immediate” release of funds on Apr. 9–-funds that were authorized on Mar. 27–-the fact is that experts knowledgeable in financial aid were unable to verify on Apr. 16 that any of the funds had actually hit any campus.

We have one unconfirmed report from an expert source that money was beginning to hit campuses this week. By Thursday morning, it was estimated by our knowledgeable observer that about $750 million of the first $6.25 billion allotment had been distributed to “a few hundred” of the 51-hundred campuses, which would amount to a 12 percent distribution of emergency funds, four weeks after the CARES Act was passed.

Setting aside pre-emptive Sunday interventions of the Federal Reserve Bank on Mar. 15, compare the speed of distribution of funds for federal student emergency relief to the direct deposit of federal treasury checks or the support of federal small business loans. Treasury checks were hitting bank accounts by Apr. 13. The SBA ran out of $350 billion by Apr. 16, before ED even began to push a paltry $6 billion in “student emergency relief” out its door. And this is not half the scandal.

A Student in Need is a Student Indeed

This week’s voices of resentment have snapped the neck of Congressional intent, which was to meet needs of students, no matter where they go to school, or where they come from. The emergency aid was intended to find any student who was suddenly ejected from a dorm room or who was scrambling to make up wages disappearing from their own jobs or the jobs of families back home.

The timing of the attack was a maneuver of expert warfare, as new rounds of COVID-19 relief funding are being negotiated on Capitol Hill. The attack is a political chiller against relief efforts for American college campuses, exactly when those efforts demand unified pressure to force a paradigm shift in student support.

Wedge Number Two: Discrimination

Are we all in this together? As ED was beginning to trickle out the funds this week, the financial aid community was stunned by the release of a 13-question FAQ which, in effect, said to foreign students and undocumented Americans: no we are not with you, either.

Before Tuesday’s FAQ, financial aid experts believed that Congress intended to cast a wide net, at least with the “student” half of COVID-19 emergency relief. They were hoping to disburse the funds with short-form requests that would not be closely tied to more detailed Title IV federal financial aid requirements, although the law allows institutions to use their Title IV systems to disperse the funds.

In a FAQ that caught many by surprise, ED said that students eligible for this round of emergency relief must be eligible for Title IV–or “could be” eligible. What this means to scrupulous financial aid professionals is that if a student is not already on federal Title IV rolls, they will need to submit a time-consuming FAFSA application.

This is a more interesting twist of fate considering that a FAQ on the ED web site made it really difficult for Harvard money to go anywhere else except to Title IV students, even as the Secretary of Education—that same day!–was calling on Harvard to not take the money. Talk about your political squeeze play.

The surprise Title IV “clarification” has the effect of excluding foreign students and undocumented Americans. In fact, financial aid professionals were quick to allege that the Title IV clarification was aimed precisely at foreign students and undocumented students, especially the undocumented students who have achieved tentative legal status under the federal DACA program initiated the summer before the 2012 election.

Daggers for DACA

“I find this merciless and repugnant war on DACA students by this administration to be repulsive and over the top,” is how one financial aid expert put it, who went on to say:

“I just find that the lengths that the administration goes through to prevent any benefit from going to DACA students–who for all intents and purposes consider this their home, grew up here, stayed out of legal trouble, and are contributing members of society by serving in the military or going to college and paying taxes–just unfathomable. And when you add in the fact that other students, potentially eligible students, will also be harmed by this policy, it’s hard to wrap your mind around.”

Financial aid experts, like the one quoted above, worry that the FAQ-mandated Title IV restriction—in its effort to exclude foreign students and DACA students–will result in the emergency aid also being more difficult to get for student citizens. Here is a good, clear example of how whiteness, implemented by white elites, is waged at the cost of marginal white folks who not only support the regime at a cost to their livelihoods, but who then believe they were robbed of those same livelihoods by foreigners and undocumented peers.

More Tricky Details

In other news, experts were also surprised that the 13 FAQs excluded any students from COVID-19 relief funding if they were taking courses solely online at an institution where they could have been taking courses off-line. The money was intended by Congress to address disruptions caused by moving online from campus, says the FAQ, never mind if the online student is challenged by expenses resulting from COVID-19 job loss.

While financial aid experts knew that half of the $12 billion in COVID-19 funds for higher ed were earmarked for direct student relief, there was widespread perception that the other half of the funds might be applied to other expenses that supported students, such as unpaid campus bills.

For instance, some campuses quickly refunded dorm fees or other costs, partly under the impression that a federal relief package would help make up the loss to Spring semester budgets.

The assumption that the second half of funding would be available for campus relief, not direct student payment, is what in fact fueled resentment against those ill-fated Harvard funds.

In a promise typical of ED over the past weeks, FAQ number one, about the first half of the money, promises another set of FAQs that will cover the second half of the money, “shortly after making those funds available to institutions.” The promise ensures that campuses will have to hold the second round of money–at least until the new FAQs are released.

Perhaps the release of FAQs on Apr. 21 pertaining to the first half of funding therefore means that indeed some of the first-half funds were being released?

But Some Good Stuff, Too

It should be noted that some of the FAQs were inclusive. One provision, for example, makes clear that certain prisoners, released because of pandemic precautions, would be able to stay in the relief loop, even though their funding was tied to a prison program.

And if an institution would be interested in getting the second round of “institutional” relief, ED does require that they first participate in getting the first round of “student” relief out the door. It’s good to know, therefore, that about 12 percent of that student relief money has likely—this week of weeks–made it to some campuses somewhere.

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Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. Moses is a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collaborative. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com

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