A $900 billion stimulus package for higher education institutions will provide the University of Wisconsin with a second round of financial assistance.
The bill requires colleges and universities to put a minimum of $9.9 million toward student assistance, according to UW Associate Vice Chancellor for Finance David Murphy. A maximum of another $19.9 million is available, totaling to almost $30 million for UW.
“$19.9 million is available for institutional uses — to make up for the loss of state appropriations, for example, and to help us pay for COVID-19 testing supplies,” Murphy said. “But we can also use that on student aid if that $9.9 million doesn’t go far enough.”
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a multitude of businesses in Wisconsin to close, making the state’s revenues less robust, Murphy said. Murphy said these losses contributed to UW’s $20 million budget cut last year and its $19 million cut this year.
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In addition to cuts in state funding, the pandemic created new expenses for the university, Murphy said.
“We’ve had to put a lot more money into testing, isolation and quarantine space for students who are exposed or infected, and we’ve had to buy masks and things like that for our frontline staff,” Murphy said. “So there’s been a lot of costs in the world of PPE, isolation and testing space.”
The pandemic also led to revenue reductions in the university’s auxiliary operations, which are units such as housing and parking that fund themselves with the revenues they generate, according to a message from Chancellor Rebecca Blank to UW employees.
Auxiliaries’ businesses rely on foot traffic, but this source of income greatly slowed due to the pandemic, Murphy said. For example, many students opted to live at home this year, which meant a lower University Housing occupancy than normal, and fewer students using dining services, Murphy said.
“I’m working from home, so I don’t have to buy a parking pass this year,” Murphy said. “Parking has a lot of debt service — in normal times they’re getting revenue that pays the debt service, but this year they still have the debt service but not the revenue payments.”
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To mitigate the financial damages caused by the pandemic, the university took measures like furloughing employees, using reserves to cover losses and freezing most hiring, according to a campus budget update from Blank.
But PhD student and Teaching Assistants Association steward Aaron Lopez said UW could have done more to help students’ financial damages, like reimbursing student service fees.
Following a petition calling for the reimbursement of nearly $750 per student of segregated fees allocated toward services halted by the pandemic, UW Director of News and Media Relations Meredith McGlone said in an email statement to the Badger Herald that the university is not planning to refund the fees.
“It feels insulting to know that the federal government is providing millions of dollars in aid to our university, and the university gets to say in the press, ‘Look at all this financial aid we’re getting to help students,’ only to turn around and take it back from us in the form of $750 in segregated fees, plus another $100 if you’re an international student,” Lopez said.
Lopez said UW could communicate better with students about the emergency funds made available to them in the first federal relief package, the CARES Act, which passed in March of 2020.
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This $14 billion stimulus bill, which also provided students with millions of dollars in emergency aid, kept many schools running in the spring of 2020, according to the Washington Post.
“It seemed like from day to day you never knew what the terms of the emergency stipends were going to be, and you never knew what you were going to be able to receive,” Lopez said. “And I know that there were a lot of students who felt discouraged from applying because of the means testing that these stipends required.”
Lopez said the means test, or a determination of whether an individual is eligible for financial assistance, made some students uncomfortable because it asked them to share a high volume of personal information in order to receive aid.
Lopez said it was also unclear to students when the university ran out of emergency assistance funds.
“When I checked the [emergency stipend] page myself, I saw that it had been redirected to a loan page where now the university was offering loans to people that they were still going to be expected to pay back,” Lopez said. “It’s frustrating when you need emergency assistance to be taken to a page where the university is really going to be making money off of you.”
Though the emergency COVID-19 stipend still existed, at some point the link got buried on UW’s financial aid landing page, Lopez said. In the end, the link was entirely replaced by the loan, Lopez said.
Lopez said hopefully, the university may take more accountability when handling the new federal stimulus package. For example, UW could use a conduit for mass communications like the Safer Badgers app to help distribute the financial aid, Lopez said.
“The reason I say that the app would be the ideal place for it is because I wouldn’t want the same thing to happen again,” Lopez said. “Since it’s on the app that people are supposed to be using frequently, if it disappears, and it’s an accident — pretending that it was ever an accident — then everyone will know that something’s up, and we can bring it to UW’s attention.”