Students express frustration with CARES Act funding


Photo courtesy Kaplan International Colleges

Northeastern offered financial assistance to students going through hardship with money given to the university by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Jessica Silverman, deputy campus editor

When Northeastern closed campus for the spring semester due to COVID-19 concerns, Olivia Bogan was left in a dilemma. Forced to leave her on-campus apartment, the rising fifth-year psychology major quickly found an off-campus sublet to move into, in which she would have to pay the next five months of rent. 

Northeastern offered financial assistance to students going through hardship with money given to the university by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This money was intended to assist students that needed money for rent, temporary housing, study abroad costs and other expenses caused by the COVID-19 crisis. 

Bogan applied for CARES Act funding with the hope that she would get money to help pay for her rent expenses. In about two hours, Bogan compiled what was needed for her application. Her roommate did the same. However, when Bogan received a response from Student Financial Services a week later, she learned that while her roommate had received the funding she had asked for, she did not. 

“My roommate, who I’m currently living with in this off-campus sublet and who I lived with on campus, we’re both low-income students. We have similar financial aid packages, and we applied for the same expenses,” Bogan said. “We both received a housing refund from the university, but she received a grant from this CARES Act … despite the fact that we’re paying the same rent and paying some utilities … So we had very similar applications, but she was [given] money and I was not.”

Bogan noted that one of the reasons given for her denied application was that she had already received emergency assistance through the university’s housing refund, yet her roommate also received the same housing refund. This reason was also used as justification for a decrease in Bogan’s financial aid from the university.

“[Student Financial Services] was seeing if the people who had applied had gotten any kind of additional help from the university like other emergency assistance, and they said that in my case, they found that other systems had been provided to me through the expenses I requested, which I did receive a housing refund,” Bogan said. “In my opinion, giving students the housing refund would be expected, but I don’t see that as emergency assistance.”

Of the $5.8 million given to Northeastern by the federal government, about $4.2 million of that money has gone towards emergency funding for students. It is unclear whether all of the money given to the university has been allocated to students since the last May 22 update, as Northeastern’s Office of Media Relations has not responded to questions on this subject from The News.

Student organizations like the First-Generation Low-Income Student Union and the Northeastern Students of Color Caucus, or NSCC, advocated for their members to apply for CARES Act Funding. According to Gisselle Rodriguez Benitez, secretary general of the NSCC, few Northeastern students were actually approved.

“There have been several students who said they haven’t received enough of what they asked for or anything at all,” the rising fourth-year economics major said. “That’s been really frustrating to see because, you know, we’re reliant on the university to allocate these funds fairly.”

The university estimated that 15,500 students were eligible for CARES Act funding, but as of May 22, has only allocated funding to 1,608 students. Rodriguez Benitez argues that it’s unfair for Northeastern to receive money based on this number of students but only grant funding to a small fraction of them.

“The federal government uses the amount of Pell Grant recipients as well as other student groups to figure out how much they’re willing to give each university. And to know that the students that are being counted in this calculation for the amount of money that the university receives [are] not getting their share of it is really frustrating because these are students that need it,” Rodriguez Benitez said. “I would consider some of the most financially vulnerable students being sort of overlooked in this process.”

Rodriguez Benitez has also heard from students that the required documentation process to apply for funding has been difficult, as some students said the university asked them for additional documentation after denying them funding. In some cases, this included tax records and housing forms that students don’t easily have access to. 

Rising fourth-year music major Ben Heim echoed Rodriguez Benitez’s claims about university transparency regarding CARES Act funding. Heim was unaware that he was required to fill out the FAFSA in conjunction with his CARES Act application until the university asked him to after he submitted his application. The university’s CARES Grant FAQ page only recommends students fill out the FAFSA prior to applying for aid, and it also notes that students will need to provide supporting documentation for most expenses.  

“What I learned after filling out the survey from Northeastern was that you still had to fill out the FAFSA for this year, which I didn’t realize ahead of time,” Heim said. “The FAFSA was actually more of a hassle than the survey itself.”

While Heim was able to receive a grant for a portion of what he asked for, he does not recall receiving an email from Northeastern and instead heard about CARES Act funding from Northeastern groups on social media. 

“I know I heard about [the CARES Act] from NEU Polls [on Facebook], and I also think I saw it on Reddit once,” Heim said. “Aside from that, [and] the occasional group chat reminder that it exists at all, I don’t know how people found out about it in the first place because I don’t think I received any official email or letter about it.”

Northeastern did inform students of the opportunity to apply for CARES Act funding in an email update to students on April 24. However, the subject line of the email was listed as “COVID-19 Updates on Co-Ops and Emergency Assistance,” and the body of the email did not include the May 28 application deadline.  

Rodriguez Benitez believes that the university needs to improve its communication to students about the status of their applications and what Student Financial Services expects from students.

“I think the university should be doing a better job of making sure that every student who needs funding is being supplied with something,” Rodriguez Benitez said. “That, and then also transparency as to what constitutes significant need [and] what doesn’t.”