The United States has spent trillions of dollars to stave off the symptoms of an economy sickened by coronavirus. But some Cornell students say the unprecedented wave of spending still leaves them in the dust.
Last month, the Office of Student Government Relations released a letter calling on the federal government to increase support for students struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic. The group is a branch of the Student Assembly created in April aimed at providing a unified voice for students to influence state and national policy.
“Students make up more than 20 percent of New York state’s population. But at the same time, students are often neglected because of [the state’s] institutions, its advocacy groups, [and] its lobbyists forming these policy decisions around higher ed,” explained OSGR Director Aadi Kulkarni ’22. “That’s not the people who are actually impacting students.”
The letter urged lawmakers to institute a direct cash transfer to “financially eligible students,” give tuition grants to students employed in “hazardous conditions” and guarantee that states, despite budget shortfalls, continue previous levels of higher education spending.
According to Kulkarni, the letter was the culmination of weeks’ worth of discussions with Cornell professors and higher education policy experts across the country. Concerns primarily centered on how the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — a mammoth spending bill passed in March that expanded unemployment benefits, funding for small businesses and direct cash assistance — did not do enough to support students impacted by campus closings and a crippled economy.
But even though the recovery package amounted to a promising start, Kulkarni said, more needs to be done to aid students, many of whom were excluded from the CARES Act’s major provisions. For instance, the $1,200 stimulus checks issued to Americans notably shut out most college students, with those claimed by their parents as tax dependents ineligible.
“The CARES Act, for all intents and purposes, was a disaster relief bill,” Kulkarni said. “It wasn’t meant for long-term help. It wasn’t meant to do anything other than address the immediate issues that were caused by COVID-19.”
The over $2 trillion spending bill did earmark $14.25 billion in emergency assistance to institutions of higher education, allocated to colleges based on their size and proportion of Pell Grant recipients. Cornell received $12.8 million in funding, and pledged to use all of it to directly support students.
But that hasn’t been the case for other schools. The CARES Act required that only half of the funds needed to be spent in the form of emergency aid to students, which could include grants to defray the cost of food, housing, course materials or child care, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“In some cases, schools were really responsive and really quick, and they invested in the infrastructure and the resources to push out this money to students,” Kulkarni said. “On the other hand, some schools still to this day, two months after, have not pushed out money to students.”
Moreover, the money could only be used to help cover students’ “expenses related to the disruption of campus operations.” This means that as the semester ended, students unable to find part-time jobs or internships are without the CARES Act’s college support.
“I think a lot of students that we spoke to and we heard from are worried about how are they going to afford their next meal? How are they going to pay for rent? How are they going to pay off their loans?” Kulkarni said, expressing hope that the letter’s three policy goals could prevent students from being left behind during the summer.
According to Kulkarni, more than 2 million students in New York State and representatives from 15 other states have signed this letter, including signatories from the University of Washington, the University of Texas, Columbia University, New York University, the University of Rochester, Syracuse University, Ithaca College and the State and City University of New York systems.
In an effort overseen by John Clancy ’22 and Ethan Rubin ’23, the OSGR has now turned its sights towards Albany, establishing contact with several New York lawmakers.
“One of the focuses of the coalition moving forward is how we can sort of pivot this momentum and pivot what we did at the federal level, but to really have a tangible impact in New York State,” Kulkarni said. The team hopes to release its state-focused list of proposals sometime this week.
Although neither chamber of Congress has appeared to have adopted any proposals similar to those advanced in the OSGR’s letter, the team remains hopeful that its lobbying efforts will eventually yield dividends for struggling students.
“Regardless of what sort of institution you go to, whether it’s a two-year community college or it’s an elite, private research institution, students are still impacted by these issues,” Kulkarni said.