COVID-19 relief funds should not be heading toward elite colleges

On April 22, Harvard University announced on its Twitter account that the school would be rejecting the $8.7 million it was allocated from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. They were soon accompanied by Stanford University, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, who all declared they were forgoing millions of dollars in stimulus cash as well. The wealthiest private universities in the nation were sent scrambling to return this money following criticism from politicians, including President Trump himself, and rightfully so. No amount of federal relief money should find its way into the pockets of colleges that predominantly serve students from the top 20% and have some of the largest endowment funds in the nation.  

When the CARES Act was signed into law on March 27, approximately $14 billion was designated for colleges and universities to provide emergency aid to students and address the costs of online learning. It also required that at least 50% of the money go directly to students to help cover expenses, while the rest is up to the school’s discretion on how to be used to cover COVID-19 related costs. This means that in cases like Harvard’s, they would get an extra $4.36 million that is not even guaranteed to be going to their students — not that the majority of their student population needs it to begin with.

It is no secret that Ivy League colleges remain schools almost solely for the privileged. In 2018, 72% of Princeton’s student body came from families that make $110,000 or more a year while only 2.2% of students were from families who make $20,000 or less a year. These numbers look more or less the same across all schools in the Ivy League. Research done by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce also documented that only 14% of undergraduates at the most competitive schools, like Stanford, Princeton and Columbia University, came from families who make up the bottom half of the U.S. income distribution. With such large proportions of their student populations already well off, these elite schools have no need for additional money. It is more likely that the majority of their students are waiting out this pandemic from the comfort of their vacation homes instead of struggling to pay rent. 

While it is important not to forget the students from lower income brackets who do go to these schools, an Ivy League college is more than equipped to support the small portion of their students who may need additional financial support. These schools receive plenty in endowments alone, which is money that is donated to a university in order to support its educational mission. Harvard University has more than $40 billion in endowments, Yale has $30.3 billion, Princeton has $26 billion and the list goes on. In comparison, the University of California, Riverside (UCR), whose operating budget for the 2019-2020 school year is approximately $1 billion and has around $176 million in endowments. Universities like Harvard and Yale receive more in donations than UCR has in its operating budget and endowments combined. Even though some endowments do have certain restrictions on how it is spent, these schools clearly still have enough money to support the tiny part of their student bodies that need it. 

Currently, Arizona State University (ASU) and Pennsylvania State University (PSU) are the two public institutions who have been allocated the most money from the CARES Act. ASU is getting over $63 million and PSU will be receiving over $54 million in emergency funds. They were granted this amount based on a formula developed by the Department of Education that takes into consideration the number of undergraduate students on a campus who receive federal Pell Grants and enrolled graduate students. 

Emergency funding should be heading toward schools who demonstrate the need for it like ASU and PSU, not elite universities. Instead of contributing to already full wallets, the rejected relief money needs to be redistributed to universities who educate students with lower socioeconomic statuses.

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