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 Not only was the information outdated, it was also severely limiting.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.


Graduate Student Mental Health: A Deepening Crisis during a Global Pandemic

During the past few months, each person in our university community has been affected deeply. However, some of us, including graduate students, are more deeply affected than others because of the material conditions of our lives and relationship to the university. Research shows that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population. High rates of depression and anxiety are further exacerbated for women, gender non-conforming, and transgender graduate students; this is no surprise considering the pervasive environment of gender discrimination and harassment in academia. The environment of higher education institutions for racially minoritized graduate students is similarly harmful. Research also shows that racially minoritized students experience numerous types of racism within their doctoral studies, resulting in symptoms of racial trauma, such as anger, shock, self-doubt, depression, dissociation, physical pain, and spiritual pain.

Graduate school is deeply challenging, often confusing, demanding, isolating, and frequently exhausting. Graduate school is an incomparably stressful situation. The stress of financial burdens including years-worth of student loan debt, limited affordable housing options in this area, the astronomically high cost of childcare, and more, pose significant threats to our emotional and mental well-being. The risk of housing and food insecurity is significant for graduate students. The economic crisis resulting from the pandemic has only made this situation more severe, as many of us have experienced loss of additional or summer income, had a partner or family member experience job loss, or have experienced other financial strain.  However, the reality is often that graduate students aren’t provided with the necessary support to navigate the highly challenging environment of graduate school. These challenges have become even more serious during this pandemic, as graduate students have scrambled to move to an online format of being both students and instructors, have suddenly had years-long research projects stalled and disrupted, have had to complete intellectually challenging projects on seemingly empty stores of mental and emotional energy, and have often had to do so  while caring for children and other family members. 

Before this global health crisis started, we were already experiencing a graduate student mental health crisis. This a crisis that is largely driven by the structures of the university that define academic life, and that continually lead to the overwork, underappreciation, and traumatization that graduate students experience as they navigate academia. The cause of the graduate student mental health crisis is not our individual capacities and characteristics. The cause is the material, social, and economic conditions of a historically white, competitive research university. We dedicate years of our lives to research, teaching and service at this university. We want to grow and learn, to become scholars, researchers, problem-solvers, and change-makers. We want to not just survive, but to thrive as graduate students—an often-impossible feat. An intervention in the mental health crisis for graduate students must start not just with mental health care, but with creating academic programs and workplaces that are supportive, caring, and humanizing. With recognizing and addressing the trauma and harm that those who have been historically and systematically excluded from and devalued within higher education experience. With realistic and authentic career guidance. With a commitment to paying all graduate employees a livable wage, and ensuring access to affordable housing, nourishment, and childcare. With supporting us, listening to us, and taking seriously our needs during a global pandemic and economic recession. The university must take responsibility for the fact that this crisis has been created by the structures and systems of the university and to commit to supporting our basic human needs.


Reverse Town Hall

What is a Reverse Town Hall?

The Reverse Town Hall is a space for students to share their experiences, concerns, and voices during the global pandemic. It is a venue to witness our shared struggle and stand in solidarity with each other. It is an opportunity to dismantle the power dynamics of a traditional town hall. Instead of a small group of administrators informing students of events to come and fielding carefully selected questions, students stand in solidarity and share the lived realities associated with administrative decisions. This is also a space to imagine how higher education institutions can respond to the crisis in ethical ways.

Why is this event happening?

Despite both graduate and undergraduate students using every forum possible to call for specific actions from the university to best protect us, the UConn administration has actively pushed us aside. As long as the administration and the Board of Trustees have final say, town halls and other similar forums will be spaces in which UConn leadership can pay us lip-service without any real accountability or shared decision-making. The recent decisions around budget cuts, reopening in the fall, and how to respond to racist violence are emblematic of this issue. We must work towards ending the economic, racial, and gender violence that plagues our university. Therefore, we call for a new system of shared governance. Let us dare to reimagine a university that is truly oriented towards equity and justice.

How can I get involved?

UConn graduate and undergraduate students interested in sharing a testimonial or statement during the event can complete this form:

How can I attend?

All members of the UConn community are invited to join us on July 14, 2:00-3:30pm at the YouTube live-stream link: