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Congress Gave Colleges A $14 Billion Lifeline. Here's Where It's Going


How are colleges spending their relief money from the federal government? Congress set aside $14 billion for colleges, universities and their students, and it matters a lot how they use that money. Colleges not only shut down this spring but face uncertainty about the fall semester. The president of Brown University told us recently that some universities could go out of business if they fail to reopen this fall. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been following the money. Good morning.


INSKEEP: What are education leaders saying about that $14 billion that they received?

NADWORNY: So from the beginning, they said $14 billion was not enough. The American Council on Education, a higher ed lobbying group, called the money woefully inadequate. We're seeing colleges with massive budget shortfalls. There's hiring freezes and furloughs and cuts to programs.

INSKEEP: Although there is the $14 billion. Where's the money going?

NADWORNY: So the majority of that money was in a bucket of about $12.5 billion. It went directly to colleges. The law requires that each school give half that money directly to students whose lives have been disrupted by the pandemic. They're facing financial challenges, struggling to make ends meet.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's interesting. So the universities don't necessarily get a lot for teacher salaries or something like that; the students get a lot or what seems like a lot. Are they benefiting?

NADWORNY: So it really depends on what school you go to whether or not you've seen that money yet. So it's been up to the schools to distribute the money, which means they make an application; they decide who gets it. And there's a lot of need right now on college campuses, and there's only so much money in the pot (ph).

And then there's this larger question about eligibility. So several weeks ago, the Ed Department said only students who were eligible for federal student aid were allowed to get the coronavirus relief. That essentially excludes international students and undocumented students, including those protected under DACA. The community college system in California has actually sued Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over those restrictions, calling them arbitrary and unlawful. But the Ed Department told NPR in a statement that if Congress wanted to include non-U.S. citizens, they would have explicitly said so.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned Education Secretary DeVos because she's been a subject of some of your other reporting on a portion of the CARES Act, this relief bill that is used - been used to boost small private colleges. What's the news there?

NADWORNY: That's right. So there was a bucket of money, a smaller bucket, about $350 million for the secretary to top off schools that hadn't gotten much relief from other parts of the bill. And we now know that money went mostly to small private schools, many of them religious. So one example is Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Ohio. They have about 150 students, certificates and graduate degrees, and they're in the process of receiving about half a million dollars. Brent Sleasman, the president there, told me it'll be about a third of their budget for next year, and they plan to use it to offset tuition.

BRENT SLEASMAN: We are a smaller school, and we have a very focused mission. It's to equip leaders for service in God's kingdom, which is not a shared mission. However, there is great possibility in the number of students we could reach through the creativity that these funds allow.

NADWORNY: You know, this comes at a time when public colleges, especially community colleges, are really hurting. They've served tens of thousands of students, and that's in comparison to these smaller some schools that serve, you know, in some cases, 100 students.

INSKEEP: OK. So questions about the distribution of the money and the amount as well, and we'll surely hear more on this subject Elissa, thanks so much.

NADWORNY: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny. She covers higher education.


Elissa Nadworny covers higher education and college access for NPR. She's led the NPR Ed team's multiplatform storytelling – incorporating radio, print, comics, photojournalism, and video into the coverage of education. In 2017, that work won an Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation. As an education reporter for NPR, she's covered many education topics, including new education research, chronic absenteeism, and some fun deep-dives into the most popular high school plays and musicals and the history behind a classroom skeleton.