Hard Lessons: the COVID-19 Bailout and College Students

A feeling of unease began to creep across the globe merely a few months ago, unease that quickly grew into widespread fear, panic, and chaos. As a species, we learned again that disease makes no distinction between race, gender, religion, sexuality, or class. Mankind has much to learn in that respect, for the COVID-19 pandemic has been used as an excuse to further the class divide and maintain the iron grip of the upper class. Unfortunately, college students are consistently exploited by universities that behave like corporations, having their circumstances jeopardized and their pockets emptied. And yet students have no choice but to turn to their exploiters for aid. Now, in the midst of a global crisis, college students are put at an even greater disadvantage as the government shows its incompetency and private universities reveal their underlying greed.

Already, a semester of college, whether at a private institution or a good state university, is the most expensive it has been in United States history. To compare, a professor of mine attended college in the early 1970s and paid $452 tuition—for the entire year. The average cost of a year’s tuition at a private university in the 2017-2018 school year was almost $50,000.1 He remarked that, despite the spike in tuition, these extra thousands of dollars that colleges and universities charge are not redirected to faculty salaries (which have not increased since the 70s, when adjusted for inflation). I, alongside millions of other students across the nation, am paying in dollars adjusted for inflation over 16 times the price of a year of college in 1970 for a year of higher education now. Why? What are these extra funds paying for? Only a small portion of our tuition money actually benefits the student body, but the administration does a wonderful job pacifying these concerns with promises of elusive “centers of excellence” and “strategic plans.” Most of it pays for a vast increase in administration. The average university administration has grown by 30% since the 1970s while the numbers of tenure and tenure-track positions have remained, like their salaries, almost flat. By way of contrast, the people who fill the newly created administrative positions are managers, most of them not intellectuals in any sense of the term. If they are deans or associate deans, they invariably make six-figure salaries which they earn by attending meetings to craft such “strategic plans” (one of such “strategic plans” often is creating new, meaningless administrative roles). The effects of these trends are visible on campuses in the forms of food courts and game nights that make campuses seem more like shopping malls and cruise ships than centers of education. How much of the increased tuition fees is left to actually benefit the education of the student body is another question.

The notion that “success without a degree is impossible” is so deeply engrained into our culture that societal pressures force nearly every young, aspiring student to send themselves into crippling debt so that they can have a 9-5 desk job. The changes in the American university in the past four or five decades prior to the present economic crisis mean that students and their families pay the university a greater proportion of their income than ever before. So why are students neglected in the current crisis when it comes to government aid?

By neglect, I am referring to the government’s stimulus package’s exclusion of a huge segment of our population: the almost 18 million college students living in the United States. The deceptive bill provides $2 trillion to be divided and distributed amongst adults living in the United States with a Social Security number (thus excluding all working immigrants, another massive problem with the stimulus bill). We’ve all heard the numbers enough times that we see them in our dreams: $1,200 per adult, $500 per child up to 16 years of age.2 Surely, college students must be included. But no—there’s a catch. Students in college claimed as dependents receive no stimulus money from the government. As a student myself, this came as a shock to me and my family, as it did to the millions of others across the nation. It shocked me that my 13-year-old sister is set to receive $500 to cover living expenses while I am expected to feel indebted to Donald Trump for freezing my student loan interest during the pandemic. And when it comes down to it, what difference does it make whether I am 16 or 18? 19 or 22? If I am a dependent (which most college students are) I am just that—dependent. So why should I not receive government funds in a global crisis when I rely upon my parents financially as much—if not more—than my younger sister?

Today, in the midst of a global crisis, students are already forced to adapt to an entirely new way of learning in a matter of days with online education being the only effective mode by which professors can continue teaching and students can continue learning. But now our financial worries are compounded. Already, for a bachelor’s degree, students are looking at tens of thousands of dollars of debt (the average student debt in America is over $28,0003), yet college students in the United States are constantly overlooked when the government addresses financial reform and aid. Not only are we paying the same price for a cheaper and inferior education, but some students must worry about grocery bills, rent, and other imminent charges that come with losing on-campus housing.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities are still required to pay the remaining balances of Federal Work Study funds to qualifying students. Some consider this “extra” income an equivalent to the stimulus bill, yet several issues arise when this mentality is applied:

1) A student who does not receive Federal Work Study as a part of their financial aid has no income whatsoever, as they presently cannot find a job close to home amidst a multitude of stay-at-home orders and, if they had an on-campus job, they have almost certainly lost it. Some may argue that such students were not given Federal Work Study funding because their finances were sufficient enough that they could pay for college without it. However, Federal Work Study was given at a time when businesses were open and students and their parents were employed at jobs that were not then classified as non-essential, as they are now. We find ourselves in a situation where unemployment rates are spiking and the number of households without a steady income—or any income at all—grows every day. Such students are receiving no stimulus money, no funds from a job, and no money from their schools to pay for food, clothes, and other miscellaneous living costs. The struggles of these students and their families should not and cannot be ignored.

2) Students who do receive Federal Work Study, on the other hand, are sometimes being paid inconsistently and are left waiting for their next paycheck, wondering if they will receive it at all. I can speak on this issue personally as a recipient of Federal Work Study funding at my university. I have been employed for the entirety of my college career and typically receive my bi-weekly paycheck with great regularity. I received my latest paycheck nearly a month ago, when I was already off-campus and quarantined in my home. Over two weeks ago, I received an email from the Student Employment Office at my university that read: Due the complexity and volume, if you don’t receive a pay check tomorrow, April 3, 2020, you will receive a paycheck on April 17, 2020 if you are eligible.” I am fortunate enough that receiving my paycheck a few weeks late does not have catastrophic effects on my livelihood. Others may not be so lucky. Because of the uncertainty surrounding when the paychecks might arrive, Federal Work Study checks cannot reliably serve as a substitute for the stimulus bill, and they certainly should not disqualify college students from receiving their share of the stimulus money. This brings me to a third issue…

3) The government’s own student aid website says it best: “Federal Work Study provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, allowing them to earn money to help pay education expenses.”4 The intent of Federal Work Study is to provide funds that students can put towards their education, not to provide funds that are contributed to expenses such as family grocery bills, electric bills, and other payments required to maintain a home for a family. Much as migrant workers will send a large portion of their earnings to their families, I know of students who use their Federal Work Study funds in this way, sending their checks to their families as they are the only family member who can work. This speaks to a larger issue within the American Education System, but it proves the same point: Federal Work Study is not a program designed to be a household’s income. It is a program intended to make higher education more affordable and attainable, and it deserves to be treated as such. We must remember that Federal Work Study is not a privilege, it is a right.

Yet my greatest issue, perhaps, does not concern Federal Work Study or frozen loan interest, but rather the allotment of $14 billion to higher education institutions across the nation. The CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) allotted such funds to colleges and universities—$6.26 billion of those funds were made available on April 9th “to provide cash grants to students for expenses related to disruptions to their educations due to the COVID-19 outbreak.”5 $14 billion! On paper, these numbers looked hopeful. Maybe things weren’t so dismal after all, and our colleges—out of the goodness of their hearts—would distribute such generous funds in a way that would alleviate the financial pressures that most students feel.

Quite the contrary.

Out of curiosity, I combed through my university’s COVID-19 support website in search of information regarding these funds. What I found was a “Student Support Basic Needs Hub” that was created to provide financial aid to students that need it. After all, that is what the funds are for. Students are eligible for these funds when they cannot afford school supplies and textbooks, food, clothing, housing, transportation in unforeseen circumstances, unforeseen medical bills, or a home free from violence or victimization.6 These students indisputably need financial support, yet the University only offers $100-$300, and there’s no guarantee that these requests will even be fulfilled. I am by no means a mathematical genius, but if colleges and universities across the nation have $14 billion intended to aid under 18 million students (many of whom wouldn’t even qualify for aid due to a lack of citizenship), that money should aid everyone. $100, $200, or even $300 is not enough for a college student who needs to pay rent after being turned away from their family’s home. It is not enough for students who need to pay for textbooks. It is not enough for students who need to afford food for an indefinite amount of time. It is stingy, it is cruel, and it is greedy. Students are abandoned and their needs are dismissed as luxuries while private institutions profit off of an international crisis and the suffering of their constituents.

This system of allotting funds creates a heartless list of “qualifications”; the University says that unless you are homeless, unless you are in a food-insecure home, unless you are in an abusive situation, you are undeserving of funds. Everyone should be receiving aid. Continuing to pay Federal Work Study is not generous, it is a necessity. Freezing loan interest is not generous, it is a necessity. Providing funds for college students regardless of their situation is not generous, it is a necessity. The American education system is not a system of growth, it is a system of greed and neglect.


1 https://www.valuepenguin.com/student-loans/average-cost-of-college

2 https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-stimulus-package-questions-answers.html

3 https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2019/02/25/student-loan-debt-statistics-2019/#2748cc1133fb

4 https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/types/work-study

5 https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/secretary-devos-rapidly-delivers-more-6-billion-emergency-cash-grants-college-students-impacted-coronavirus-outbreak

6 https://www.rochester.edu/students/support/

Lauren Novosat is a student at the University of Rochester, where she studies English Literature and Classics.