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After Months without Eligible CARES Aid from Monmouth Students Address President Leahy with Concerns

default article imageOn Wednesday, June 3, the Monmouth Pell Recipients for CARES Aid (MPRCA), a student organization recently established to address Pell grant recipients from Monmouth who have not yet received CARES aid despite eligibility, sent a letter to President Patrick Leahy and the Monmouth CARES Act Grant team. Students have also formed a petition to address these concerns, which has circulated the Monmouth community and has nearly met its goal of 1,000 signatures. The MPRCA letter to Leahy is published below.

Dear President Leahy and the CARES Act Grant Team:

We are writing to you to share our concerns that Monmouth University, when tasked with distribution of emergency relief aid for the COVID-19 pandemic, has maneuvered in such a way which penalizes its low-income students for being poor. The University received nearly $5 million in grant aid through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES”). Of this funding, $2.5 million was provided through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (“HEERF”) to be used as the minimum allocation of emergency financial aid grants to students.

In establishing an “Unmet Need” eligibility criteria for distributing the HEERF funds, the University has denied a large proportion of its low-income students vital emergency aid needed to financially withstand the disruption of campus operations on account of the pandemic as CARES intended. This strikes us as troubling given that, as we will discuss below, our New Jersey peer institutions have made very different value choices in these times of crisis.

I. BACKGROUND

The Monmouth CARES Act Grant Team established that in order for students to be eligible for emergency grant aid through HEERF, they must have been enrolled at Monmouth for spring 2020, filed a FAFSA, met all federal Title IV financial aid eligibility requirements, and had unmet financial need. The University's “Unmet Need” criteria, is calculated for each student, using the following formula: Unmet need = Need — Need-based financial aid received. This formula discriminates against Monmouth’s poorest students. The CARES Act Grant Team chose to formulate this calculation despite Section 3504 of the CARES Act which indicates that institutions should provide "emergency financial aid grants to assist undergraduate or graduate students for unexpected expenses and unmet financial need as the result of a qualifying emergency.” In this same section of the CARES Act it states institutions may “waive the amount of need calculation under section 471 of the Higher Education Act of 1965.”

 The “Unmet Need” criteria which Monmouth has created, makes students who received the most need-based financial aid ineligible to receive grant aid through HEERF. This decision is perplexing to us given that you repeated public declarations in support of Federal Pell Grant students. These students, who Monmouth has chosen not to evaluate for aid, overwhelmingly represent the University’s Federal Pell Grant recipients and Pell eligible graduate students (“Pell eligible students”). Although we understand that some Federal Pell Grant recipients have received the aid, we take issue with the University’s decision not to distribute emergency aid funds to all Pell eligible students.

Federal Pell eligibility was the primary factor in the Department of Education’s HEERF allocation to postsecondary institutions. In fact, 75 percent of Monmouth’s HEERF aid was based on its share of full-time equivalent Pell Grant recipients. The Federal Pell program was created to allow students who display financial exceptional need, the opportunity to receive a higher education through financial assistance. Since then, the program has served as a marker for low-income status. Had it not been for the University’s more than 1,400 Pell recipients, the school would not have even received the nearly $2.5 million it now denies a large proportion of Pell eligible students. In a word, it might look to outsiders as if the Monmouth University administration has turned its back on the very students that made the HEERF aid possible, and some have asked us about the legality of that calculation.

Further, any need-based aid rendered to Pell eligible students at the start of the spring 2020 semester, more than five months ago—prior to the declaration of a pandemic, does not equate to emergency aid during the time of the pandemic which the HEERF assistance is indicated for.

Equally important, as an institution seeking to become more diverse and inclusive, Monmouth has a responsibility to know the consequences of withholding vital emergency aid to its low-income students. The cost alone of receiving higher education is already a huge barrier preventing low-income students from degree completion, especially for those who are black and latinx. A 2019 report from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that at private four-year institutions, 62.1 percent of the African American and 55.2 percent of Hispanic and Latino students received a Pell Grant in the 2015-16 academic year.3 With prevalent and truly tragic displays of racism across the country as we speak, in addition to Monmouth’s quite recent and extended history of racism within its own community, the denial of emergency relief aid does not create an environment for the University to protect and retain its low-income students of color.

On top of this, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an additional barrier to graduating for low-income students, as the disruption of campus learning caused many to lose their jobs as they struggled to keep up with coursework in home environments with lack of adequate study space, access to internet, or computers. Forcing low-income students to go without the HEERF aid creates yet another barrier for them. A recent Pew Research Center report shows that only 23 percent of low-income households have sufficient resources to cover expenses for three months in case of an emergency Low-income students at the University are already at greater risk of discontinuing their education. As we can share further, the MPRCA team sent out a survey to Monmouth students, 161 responded in just four days. The preliminary findings show that Pell eligible students indicated the pandemic may cause them to take time off school next semester. Denying aid to these students without regard to the repercussions is inconsistent with the University's efforts, and your own public commitments to sustain a racially and economically diverse student population. This, in addition to the disruption of campus learning, creates a lose-lose situation for Monmouth’s low-income Pell eligible students. It also puts us in a precarious position vis a vis our peer institutions who seem to have made more equitable choices.

II. PEER INSTITUTION COMPARISONS

Of New Jersey’s fourteen independent four-year colleges, Monmouth University is the only institution who has established an “Unmet Need” criteria for eligibility of emergency relief aid through the CARES Act. Below are examples of how Monmouth’s Peer Institutions disbursed its HEERF grant, more equitably to its students.

 Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ “Because 75 percent of the CARES Act emergency student funding to universities was based on the number of students at each school eligible to receive Pell Grants, Seton Hall will distribute 75 percent of its grant — approximately $2.1 million — automatically to students who are enrolled in the spring 2020 semester and are recipients of Pell Grants.”

Saint Peter's University, Jersey City, NJ “Saint Peter’s University will distribute CARES Act funds in three phases:

Phase I: Immediate need-based grants (approximately 60% of the funds): These grants, ranging between $350 and $1000, will go to all eligible full-time, dependent, undergraduate students via check payments. Students will receive a personalized email indicating the amount of their grant within the next 3-5 business days. Students with questions about their grant amount after Friday, May 22nd may email studentaccounts@saintpeters.edu for more information. The amount of the various individual grant awarded in Phase I will be determined by: Full-time undergraduate status enrolled in an on-ground program, Pell eligibility, Resident v. Commuter status (at the time of the disruption), Confirmed FAFSA filer for spring 2020.

Calculation of pro-rated unexpected expenses based on the university’s non-tuition cost of attendance during the semester disruption including but not limited to food, housing, moving expenses, technology (i.e. internet, hardware, software), childcare, medical expenses, and supplies, and miscellaneous expenses.

Phase II: Approximately 35% of the relief funding has been set aside in order for the University to consider students’ appeals for assistance who did not meet the criteria for automatic distribution, as well as for students who may need to appeal for additional financial support. Students from any undergraduate or graduate degree program eligible for Title IV funding may apply. Also, students awarded funding from Phase I may apply for additional funding consideration by completing the application if they feel more relief is necessary given their individual circumstance.”

Phase III: Finally, we realize that many students who study in the summer terms at Saint Peter’s University are continuing to experience expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to the coronavirus (COVID-19). In Phase III approximately 5% of the relief funding will provide emergency grants of $100- $300 to support students who are enrolled in 3 or more credits of summer study. These grants will be administered following the last date to withdraw for the term.”

Drew University, Madison, New Jersey “Students who meet the basic eligibility for federal financial aid and who have the greatest financial need can be considered for these emergency funds. The Office of Financial Assistance will use your submitted application (link below) and your 2019–2020 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine your eligibility for funding.”

III. RECOMMENDATIONS

Taking this into consideration, the Monmouth Pell Recipients for CARES Aid (MPRCA) respectfully requests that Monmouth University:

1. Prioritize the immediate release of the CARES Act emergency grant aid through HEERF specifically to all Pell eligible students and disburse remaining funds under the guidance of a diverse working team using the rationale of Monmouth’s Peer institutions, by a set deadline.

2. Discontinue the use of an “Unmet need” criteria which makes many Pell eligible students ineligible for aid though the HEERF.

3. Make public an itemized list detailing how the University intends on utilizing the full $2.5 million of its funding through the HEERF of the CARES Act. At a minimum, MPRCA believes this list should include:

• The number of Pell recipients and Pell eligible graduate students— detailing the amounts both full-time and part-time students will be receiving;

• The disbursement process for Non-Pell eligible students to receive remaining funds through HEERF; and,

• An interim general statement on how the school intends to use the remaining $2.5 million it received through the CARES Act outside of the HEERF.

IV. CONCLUSION

Monmouth’s “Unmet Need” criteria denies low-income students, those who receive the most need-based financial awards, the vital emergency aid provided through the CARES Act. This decision seems inconsistent with the public declarations you have made to support traditionally underrepresented students at Monmouth University. This disconcerting mismatch between your stated commitments and University policy is colliding with the COVID-19 crisis and is taking a toll on the mental and emotional wellbeing of all of Monmouth’s students and their families. We urge you to amend the University’s eligibility criteria based on our recommendations so that low-income students can receive much needed emergency relief aid.

We know that you share our concerns about the educational and personal health and well-being of all students at Monmouth University, and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss our concerns with you and the CARES Act team at your earliest convenience.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Monmouth Pell Recipients for CARES Aid (MPRCA)

Contact Information

CAMPUS LOCATION
The Outlook
Jules L. Plangere Jr. Center for Communication
and Instructional Technology (CCIT)
Room 260, 2nd floor

MAILING ADDRESS
The Outlook
Monmouth University
400 Cedar Ave, West Long Branch, New Jersey
07764

Phone: (732) 571-3481 | Fax: (732) 263-5151
Email: outlook@monmouth.edu