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Young Invincibles: Elite Institutions Should Accept Stimulus Funds

Late last week, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) joined its rich, elite peers, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale universities, in refusing its share of funds from the coronavirus stimulus package.

It was a laudable move on the part of these universities, many observers said, but one advocacy group, Young Invincibles (YI), which advocates for youth issues, said on Monday the universities shouldn’t refuse the funds.

No, YI didn’t say these big-endowment universities should just take and use the money for themselves. It said these elite universities should make sure they are fully serving the needs of their own low-income students. And if they determine they can and are, these colleges, with endowments in the billions of dollars, should apply for the money and get it — and then give it away to colleges more in need.

“Harvard could have sent their money to Bunker Hill Community College. Stanford could have sent theirs to Bay Area community colleges,” wrote Dr. Kyle Southern, YI’s policy and advocacy director, Higher Education and Workforce,  in a letter on the organization’s blog on Monday. “How could anyone who has followed education for the last three years entrust dollars Congress explicitly directed be put in the hands of students as fast as possible instead back in the hands of this Department of Education?”

Southern told Diverse on Monday that he’s most concerned about higher education institutions like community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and all the institutions that serve disproportionately high numbers of low-income students, students of color and first-generation students.

“Of those institutions that I mentioned particularly [in my letter] … Harvard has 11% Pell Grant recipient students and Bunker Hill has 48%,” he said about the Boston-based multi-campus community college.

Dr. Kyle SouthernDr. Kyle Southern

For YI and for Southern, who was an undergraduate beneficiary of the Pell Grant himself, this pandemic is a time in which all leaders of higher education should work together for the benefit of marginalized students. Rich universities, he said, shouldn’t be cowed into refusing their share of the coronavirus stimulus money. They should take it and use it for students in need across higher education institutions. He was referring to President Donald Trump’s and Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’ criticism of rich institutions like Harvard accepting stimulus funds.

“I just think it’s important for leaders in the field of higher education to speak up on behalf of students and not apologize for that in the face of harsh statements from the president and secretary of education,” said Southern. “What we have to do is not respond to that kind of intimidation, and say we have to demonstrate a commitment to the marginalized in society and the economy and fulfill the intent of Congress in a time of historic need. I would encourage colleges to concern themselves less with the president’s tweets and concern themselves with the needs of students.”

Southern’s point is that universities should take their portion of the funding that has been made available and use it maximally, by providing for any students, not just their own, in this time of dire need. Of the $14 billion allocated for higher education in the stimulus package, provided through the CARES Act, a shade under half is meant to be used as emergency grants for students in need. In fact, institutions can devote even more than that to support additional emergency cash grants for students, said DeVos last week when announcing the release of funds for institutional support.

As a matter of fact, DeVos went further. On April 9 and on April 22, she urged universities that don’t need the stimulus money to give it up so other colleges more in need can use the funds.

“If you determine that your institution’s students do not have significant financial need at this time, I would ask that you consider giving your allocation to those institutions within your state or region that might have significant need,” said DeVos.

Therein lies the rub, though, said Dr. Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education and co-chair of the Department of Education Leadership Management and Policy at Seton Hall University, in an interview with Diverse. He said the legality involved in “giving your allocation” to other institutions isn’t clear.

Dr. Robert KelchenDr. Robert Kelchen

“It’s easier for wealthy colleges to never accept money than to figure out how to give it away and if there are any legal implications to give it away,” said Kelchen. “I think it would be a nice gesture to take it and give it away, but I don’t know how they would give it away.”

Kelchen is on the money, so to speak, especially considering guidance released last week from the Department of Education bars undocumented, or DACA, students from receiving federal emergency cash funds. DACA refers to those under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“Ruling out DACA students is a mistake,” said Southern. He added that what is clear is the law “wants to give the broadest possible discretion to institutions to meet the needs of students” during the coronavirus crisis.

“That’s clear, the mandate for broad discretion,” he said. “The CARES Act wants to as quickly as possible get money in the hands of people who need it right now and for us, the most important consideration is to fulfill that intent of Congress. It doesn’t seem in keeping with that intent of the law to not take [the funds] and thus delay its distribution.”

But that seems to be the problem, at least for some institutions that turned down the stimulus money.

For instance, Princeton University, when refusing its share of stimulus funds – some $2.4 million – indicated on Twitter that undocumented students being barred might be a reason for it turning down the CARES funds.

“Princeton’s no-loan financial aid packages and other programs are designed to provide exceptional levels of support to our students, including DACA beneficiaries and international students,” said the Ivy League institution in a statement on Twitter on April 22. “We remain committed to providing this support.”

In a statement to The Daily Princetonian, a university spokesman also indicated Princeton wasn’t in agreement with how the funds are to be used or not used. That he was referring to undocumented students seemed evident given his follow-up statement, which reiterated the university’s Twitter statement.

“Princeton, which did not request these funds, has examined whether it could use them in a manner consistent with congressional intent and guidance provided by the Department of Education,” said deputy university spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss to The Daily Princetonian. Per several accounts, Princeton might have been the first university to turn down the CARES funding.

DACA students being ineligible for coronavirus aid is one of many legal issues rich colleges and universities will have to confront if they, as YI suggests, do accept stimulus funds and choose to give them away.

“I don’t think these colleges expected criticism for applying for the money, frankly, but I don’t think they expected criticism for not taking the money and not giving it to someone else; I don’t think that thought crossed their minds,” said Kelchen when asked to specifically comment on YI’s suggestion.

“DeVos is probably okay with it [universities giving away the money] but it’s hard to tell because these colleges have been granted money by a formula Congress set,” said Kelchen. He’s referring to the CARES Act formula for higher education funds that is weighted based on institutions’ number of full-time students and the students who are Pell Grant-eligible, among other things.

Kelchen said he’s “much more concerned” about what will happen to community colleges and less selective colleges because “if nothing else, this [pandemic] has reminded people of that.”

But could richer colleges, say, take the CARES funds and use them the way Congress has determined, and then dip into their billion-dollar endowments to give money to community colleges and other underfunded higher education institutions?

“Yes, probably,” said Kelchen. “Assuming it’s legal, they could pick a local, regional college and give them the money … Again, it’s unclear to me [how] … but I imagine they can do that.”

Southern stressed he isn’t a legal expert and couldn’t speak to how this could be done. He agreed, though, that it was one way to distribute funds to those students most in need. Still, he was also quick to point out it may not be the most effective way.

“Endowments are aggregations of lots of different funds with restrictions tied to them,” he said. “What institutions with large endowments could do is go back to a donor and say, ‘you gave these funds for these purposes, but you know as we do that the most immediate need right now is for students, for them to have internet access, and other things, so can we rework that donation?’ But that takes time and students are experiencing needs and challenges right now.”

The CARES Act funds, Southern said, are accessible right now, and that money should be fully utilized, by any and every institution.

“The CARES Act has more liquid cash. If universities sign them away and the Department [of Education] signed them away to develop a new formula for dollars not claimed, that could take weeks and delay is something we just cannot afford.”

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