UConn CARES Act Distribution: Confusion, Chaos, and Inequity

A guest post written by Mary Bugbee, Jordan McMillan, and Will Biel

Background: What the CARES Act gave UConn

UConn, like other universities around the country, was granted federal aid to distribute directly to students to help with costs associated with the closure of campus and move to online. Despite having a great deal of latitude to disperse these grants, they chose to make receiving grant money dependent on the 2019-2020 FAFSA. This was a move to sacrifice equity in the name of efficiency, and a decision which left us dumbfounded. The 19-20 FAFSA is based on a student’s 2017 tax information, and thus is not the information which would be most helpful for determining who needs funds right now, during an unprecedented health and economic crisis. Not only was the information outdated, it was also severely limiting. There are many students who don’t file FAFSAs, such as graduate assistants who have tuition waivers and receive a modest stipend, and therefore don’t take out loans — even though they often have to work additional jobs to make ends meet. For both these reasons, using the 19-20 FAFSA was a poor response to the current crisis, and the responsibility for that choice lies with the university rather than the federal government. Per federal guidelines, CARES Act aid should be available for students who are eligible to file FAFSAs, whether they’ve done so or not. therefore , UConn’s aid policy shut out many students from aid.

Graduate student Mary Bugbee tweeted about the University policy and a reporter from WNPR picked up the issue. He asked President Katsouleas about the tweet in a live interview. The President stated that Mary was misinformed, and anyone could file a FAFSA that same day and still be eligible. We, and our graduate student colleagues, remained perplexed and frustrated. Were they intentionally making information difficult to find? Were they trying to discourage new applicants? Nowhere in official university communications was there information about how we could still file a FAFSA to be eligible.

Fumbles & Gas Lighting

In light of those multiple problems, we organized as students to demand more transparency from the University, as well as to just have the basic information we needed to secure grants if we needed them. We initially drafted a letter with a list of demands, calling for increased transparency about the distribution of funds, and clear communication on eligibility and the application process. This letter resulted in a meeting with the administration, in which we were assured our voices had been heard and improved communication was forthcoming. But they did not make good on this. Rather than recognizing there had been miscommunications and making corrections based on student voices, the University steamrolled us to carry forth a plan that left countless students without access to aid.

On May 11, the Financial Aid office published an informative web page for students with questions about CARES Act grants (based on some suggestions we made to Fuerst in the meeting). On close inspection, we discovered inconsistencies within the FAQs and asked for clarification. Meanwhile, we were hearing from students that the Financial Aid office staff were providing them with conflicting on how to access aid.

As it turns out, the University had a deadline in place for receiving the 19-20 FAFSA. This deadline was May 4, but was not announced to the students until May 11, when it was published on a web page linked through a University Coronavirus update email. A deadline that is publicly announced many days after the fact is a bad faith “attempt” at transparency, an attempt that resulted in stress and confusion. When the University creates confusion and chaos around desperately needed federal aid, they perpetuate institutionalized inequity. Students who needed the aid the most were subjected to additional stress, confusion, and uncertainty. Furthermore, if students had not organized for transparency and communication, the University would have happily allowed students who had not already filed a FAFSA to think they were ineligible, leaving out some of the neediest students––the same ones the university claims to care so much about. 

Current Situation & Conclusions

This was all happening toward the end of the semester. Graduate student employees were having to take time away from work and research to advocate and organize with other students to get some type of resolution. Every time there was a new development, we dropped what we were doing to to help put out fires. We were doing work that administrators are allegedly getting paid to do.

The University was given a great responsibility in distributing the CARES Act. While we recognize the time constraints and the enormity of the task, the university operated under an “act first, seek forgiveness later” model. Because the University acted before seeking input, students missed out or had to devote time that should have gone to their studies trying to figure out how to get aid. We had to devote what precious little time we had to holding the administration accountable and forcing transparency where we could. The purpose of Shared UConn is to emphasize the importance of student voices and experiences in decision-making, and to demand shared governance in situations like the CARES Act distribution. We will not grant the forgiveness the university seeks for the problems with the CARES Act; the only apology we accept is changed behavior. UConn: you must include student voices by creating channels of shared governance with the student body.