Congress allocated $14 billion in relief money to colleges. Here’s how it impacts Northeastern

Charlie Wolfson, news staff

On March 25, Congress took action against the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, and after a protracted debate over the details, passed a $2 trillion relief package. Within that, $14 billion was allocated to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. Of that $14 billion, Northeastern received $11,648,813.

The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund is created, distributed and governed by about 700 words of legalese on page 287 of the law, known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Here’s how it impacts Northeastern and other Boston-area colleges and universities.


How can Northeastern spend the money?

The CARES Act requires that at least 50 percent of the allocation must be used to “provide emergency financial aid grants to students for expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus,” which includes things like food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and child care.

Northeastern’s Office of Media Relations has not responded to questions about how students can apply for such emergency grants. 

The law is murkier on what the university can do with the other 50 percent of the allocation, specifying instead things the money cannot be used for.

The law says the funds can be used to “cover any costs associated with significant changes to the delivery of instruction due to the coronavirus,” but cannot be put toward recruitment activities, endowments or athletic and religious facilities. 

As a private institution, Northeastern is not required to disclose much of its financial activity to the public. But the CARES Act states that institutions must submit a report to the government that describes the use of the allotment. It’s unclear how detailed the report would need to be, when it will be submitted or if it will be available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. 

How was the money allocated among the country’s colleges and universities?

Most of the Higher Education Relief Fund, about $12.5 billion, was divided up based on two factors: 75 percent of each school’s amount was based on its “relative share of full-time equivalent enrollment of Federal Pell Grant recipients.” The other 25 percent was determined by the number of students who aren’t Pell Grant recipients.

In simpler terms, each school’s allotment was calculated according to both its number of Pell Grant recipients and its number of other students, with the number of Pell Grant recipients being weighted more.

Now that $12.5 billion has been distributed, about $1.5 billion remains in the Higher Education Relief Fund. According to the law, $1 billion of that will be distributed in some manner to minority-serving institutions, and $350 million will be given to institutions that the government “determines have the greatest unmet needs related to coronavirus.”

The law stipulates that which institutions have the greatest needs will be determined after the other 97.5 percent of the Higher Education Relief Fund is doled out.

The CARES Act and federal student loans

Payments on federal student loans are suspended through Sept. 30, 2020. Interest will not accrue during that time. This does not mean that the amount owed for those months is forgiven — the loan is essentially frozen in time until October. The law does nothing to alter private loans. 

Congress is likely to consider additional coronavirus relief packages in the future, and it’s unclear just how long the economy will be at a standstill because of the pandemic.