Starting in May 2020 in response to the financial toll of the pandemic, the federal government’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) CARES grant has provided three direct emergency cash grants to college students, the most recent being the American Rescue Plan (ARP) or HEERF III issued in May 2021. A significant reduction in the CARES grant issued earlier this month compared to last semester surprised Vassar students relying on these funds. The nearly $1000 reduction per student is partly due to the allocation of funds per federal guidelines and to the overwhelmingly large number of applicants, rather than the College itself. While it was never communicated that the second-semester grants would be of the same amount as the first semester, many students under this impression were left lost.
“How am I going to afford this upcoming semester?” Noon Elmostafa ’25 a student who depended on the CARES act said. “[The grant] was the only thing keeping me afloat last semester. I am working during the winter break but the money is going back to my family so I don’t have any funds for the upcoming semester.”
Unlike financial aid, these direct grants to students are not guaranteed for the year nor entirely up to the College to distribute. Rather, it is the federal government that decides the allocation criteria and the amount issued to colleges that apply for funds. Vassar allocated these funds first in Aug. 2021, prioritizing students who had the required Title IV and Pell eligibility status of financial aid and need. One thousand five hundred ninety-two students received amounts of $1,200 and $1,800. Later, in Dec. 2021, the College allocated these funds to eight students who hadn’t accepted their grant in the previous cycle.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immense impact on the lives of students everywhere, especially those with exceptional need, whether related to finances, food insecurity, housing or other issues,” Dean of Student Growth & Engagement Wendy Maragh Taylor and Director of Grants Development Gary Hohenberger commented in an email correspondence. They continued,“Vassar is grateful to have been able to provide some relief to students in our community in accordance with federal guidelines for allocating HEERF funding.”
The $237, 269 remaining in HEERF III from the federal government was used to fund student grants issued in Jan. 2022 and, unlike previous grants, was open to all students due to changing federal guidelines according to Taylor and Hohenberger. This was meant to account for students who were not eligible yet still in need due to the collective financial impact of the pandemic. An opt-out option was included to account for students who wanted the pool of funds to be allocated to peers in greater need according to Taylor. The instructions about the applications, the opt-out option and how the funds were allocated to students were included in an email from Taylor that provided a link to the application on Dec. 20, 2021.
“We determined for the final round to proceed in a slightly different way to address the needs of as many students as possible,” Taylor and Hohenberg noted. “There was no advance determination to reduce the amount granted in the most recent disbursement of HEERF III funds; it was based entirely on the availability of remaining funds and the number and needs of students who applied.”
Ultimately, the 821 students who applied were granted $289 each. Student responses were split between appreciation and surprise at the lowered grant amount. Since the grants awarded were above the funds given to Vassar to distribute, the College redistributed $39,909 dollars of institutional funds out of the total $5,219,210 received through HEERF III towards the grants.
Still, students believe more could be done from the College with an endowment of $1.3 billion (according to the College’s Financial Statements and Report of Independent Certified Public Accountants) to ensure equal access to education, especially for low-income students during these challenging times.
“We feel very lost, especially students who are not able-bodied or low-income or from marginalized communities,” Kiran Rudra ’24 said. The grant was disappointing to Rudra who now has a harder time accessing mental health services. “[We] feel like [we’re] not being seen or heard and that [we’re] expendable because of concerns that we’re not being supported financially and COVID safety concerns,” he shared.
Both Elmostafa and Rudra were able to access resources that they wouldn’t have been able to without the Fall 2021 grant such as COVID-19 supplies, travel costs and mental health services. Considering the financial toll of COVID-19, such as parental job loss for Elmostafa, both decided to apply for the funds expecting a similar amount because of the funds received last semester.
“I’m the second oldest so I feel that I have responsibility for my siblings and my family,” Elmostafa explained. She continued, “It’s nice to just send money back home…that’s what I did with the rest of the CARES money I didn’t need for the first semester.”
Now, both students have less than a quarter of the funds they were counting on. Elmostafa now questions how she will be able to help her family.
Rudra admits that although he is not in the worst financial situation, he is still struggling and disappointed at the College’s transparency. “[The reduced grant] makes a lot of students feel like they don’t matter as much,” he said. “Schools can say that they are need-blind all they want but it requires [them] to show up for students in more than just one way. I haven’t spoken to a Vassar student recently that hasn’t felt a little bit lost [or] confused as to what is going on.”
The College, when asked what changes are being made to increase communication with students, acknowledged the importance of clear communication and the funds themselves. They maintain that they have “communicated proactively when we have information to share, and why we have been responsive to students when they have inquired of us.”
Elmostafa draws a distinction between responsivity and addressing her concerns in receiving the same email sent to all who emailed Taylor which left several of her concerns unanswered. While the College does not have full discretion over the allocation of federal CARES grant funds, widespread misunderstanding among students resulting in further financial struggles has renewed the demand for clear communication from the College.