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With Federal Funds Depleted, BC Says it Won’t Pay Students Unable to Work

Boston College’s closure of residence halls and move to online classes cost some students more than just the traditional college experience—for junior Jessica Flores, it also meant losing the source of income she depends on.

The lack of income from work-study is a significant loss for Flores, MCAS ’21, a full Pell Grant student who worked as an administrative assistant in the philosophy department.

The Department of Education has issued guidance saying that even if Federal Work-Study (FWS) students are unable to work because of the novel coronavirus disruptions, colleges and universities may continue to pay them the same wages for any scheduled hours, although they are not required to. Schools may also allow these students to work by other means, including online.

But since the University’s decision to move online for the time being, many Boston College students who were employed on campus, including those working through FWS, have found themselves without a paycheck.

Student employees not approved to continue working will not be paid for the rest of the semester because the University’s allotment of FWS funds for the 2019-2020 academic year has been “fully utilized,” according to a statement in the FAQ section of BC’s Coronavirus Updates webpage. Undergraduate FWS students and non-FWS student employees who are approved by a supervisor to continue working on campus, off campus, or remotely will be paid through “BC funding.”

The initial statement on the FAQ page said only students who remained on campus or lived nearby could continue working, but by March 28, it was updated to include the option for remote work. At the time of publication, the FAQ on the webpage for the Office of Student Services had not been updated to include the option for students to continue working remotely.

Federal funds only cover a percentage of the award and earnings a student receives through Federal Work-Study, and the remainder of the money is paid by the student’s institution.

With BC’s Federal Work-Study Program, 75 percent of the money is funded by the federal government and 25 percent by the University, Director of Student Financial Strategies and Enrollment Analytics Bernie Pekala said in an email to The Heights.

Pekala said that, each year, the University depends on funding from within the institution once it exhausts its federal funding, and this year’s allocation had been fully spent by the end of February.

Universities are not allowed to allocate the Federal Work-Study funds anywhere outside the scope of the program, including paying FWS wages, paying administrative costs associated with FWS, and paying summer student employees.

Each university or college is allotted a specific amount of Federal-Work Study funds. An institution must make the determination as to how to distribute them to as many students as possible based on students’ demonstrated financial need, while making the funds last throughout the school year, President of the National Student Employment Association Bridget Schwartz said in an email to The Heights.

If a college or university depletes its allotment of FWS funds, or if students reach their award limit, each institution is responsible for paying the rest of the student’s earnings if they continue to log hours of work, she said.

President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act into law on March 27. The law includes a provision releasing universities from their obligation to match funds for campus-based aid programs including Federal Work-Study.

Pekala did not respond to follow-up questions about why BC depleted its funding in February and if it is typical for the University to do so.

Representatives from Federal Student Aid, an office of the U.S. Department of Education, could not answer questions about how universities are supposed to distribute their FWS funds. They said individual universities should be contacted for more information.

BC’s Office of Financial Aid did not respond to several calls and email requests from The Heights for more information. The Office of Student Services had directed The Heights to Associate Vice President of University Communications Jack Dunn, who directed The Heights to Pekala. After his initial response to The Heights, Pekala was unable to be reached for more information.

A junior student in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, who spoke to The Heights under the condition of anonymity, explained that the lack of assistance from the University for FWS students came as a shock to her. In addition to losing work-study income, she learned that if claimed as dependents, college students would not receive any government aid from the CARES Act. The act gives $1,200 to qualifying adults over the age of 24 and allocates $500 per child under the age of 17.

“I definitely was depending on either the government check and/or work-study, and now that neither are coming through, it’s been a stressor,” she said.

The disappointments continued when she expressed this concern to her financial aid adviser, who recommended that she dip into her BC student account balance. After BC announced that students were to move out of dorms, the University notified students in an email on March 12 that they would be issued prorated refunds for on-campus housing and that they would be refunded any unused money on their meal plans.

“It’s kind of messed up because we’re still losing money,” she said. “She’s recommending the money that [I’d use] for housing next semester that I shouldn’t have to pull from, but I’m probably going to have to now.”

Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert, told The Heights that one reason a university might run out of its funds is if it underestimated the demand for work-study jobs.

“It’s normal for colleges to award more work-study jobs than are available because they are counting on not every student actually taking them up on it,” he said. “Sometimes, there is more demand than they estimated and so they run out of work-study money.”

If universities do not use their entire allocation of FWS funds by the end of the year, they might receive a reduced allocation for the subsequent year, so it is common for colleges to try to use the full amount, Kantrowitz said.

Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor

Kantrowitz said that in a normal year, a university’s reliance on its own funding to match the remaining 25 percent would not be an issue, but because of the novel coronavirus, institutions are having to bear unforeseen expenses, including issuing refunds to students for housing and meal plans, and some have to “save money where they can.”

“Colleges are under a lot of financial pressure as a result of this and so that may force them to make difficult and in some cases maybe even unwise decisions about methods of saving money,” he said.

It is unclear whether the University was drawing from its 25 percent matching requirement to pay work-study students before it depleted its allotment of federal funds in February, or if it had not yet contributed the 25 percent before that point.

The Massachusetts state government closed non-essential businesses and schools on March 24, meaning work-study students stopped working on campus at this time, according to an email a senior student received from her financial aid adviser. But despite this state-wide restriction, other universities in Massachusetts have altered their policies for student employment to alleviate some of the financial struggles their students are facing.

A statement on Harvard University’s website encouraged those who are not able to work remotely to apply for different positions that can be completed virtually for the duration of the semester. At both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for students whose financial aid packages require that they work, the universities said they would replace half of the students’ expected contribution from work with an additional university scholarship.

Northeastern University announced it would continue paying all student employees through the end of the term, regardless of their positions or types of funding, even if they are unable to continue working remotely. The students will be paid for the hours they were originally scheduled to work.

Boston University decided it would continue to pay all FWS employees even if they cannot work remotely. BU is also paying non-FWS students who cannot work remotely for two additional weeks before temporarily ending their employment.

“I was hoping BC would handle it differently. [It’s] very disconnected,” said the senior student, who studies in the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences and spoke to The Heights on the condition of anonymity.

An institution’s ability to continue to pay its students may be influenced by the financial cushion afforded to it by an endowment, Kantrowitz said.

“Most colleges that have [significant] endowments are probably able to weather the storm,” he said. “The purpose of an endowment is partly to provide, not just a supplemental source of income to cover college costs, but for a rainy day. You don’t want to tap into your endowment to pay your ongoing expenses, but in a worst case scenario, you have that available.”

Several schools with endowments similar to BC’s are continuing to pay Federal Work-Study students for the hours they would have worked had their campuses remained open. Others are offering grants, one-time payments, or portions of the wages these students would have received while working their previously approved hours.

This list includes the five schools listed immediately above and below Boston College in the 2019 NACUBO-TIAA Study of Endowments. BC is the only university on this list to mention that its FWS funds have been depleted.  (Graphic by Allyson Mozeliak / Heights Editor)
*U. of Washington is discussing grant assistance for lost FWS wages, but has not made a definitive decision.
**A proposal to pay students their remaining FWS funds has been brought to Purdue’s higher-level administrators.
***Includes entire university system.

The CARES Act also includes the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, which provides approximately $14 billion to be distributed to colleges and universities to assist with costs incurred as a result of the pandemic. Factors considered in determining the allocations to each school were the number of students who are Pell-eligible, the total student population, and the number of students who were not enrolled full-time online before the COVID-19 outbreak.

BC received a total of $6.5 million and is required to set aside a minimum of $3.2 million to be awarded in the form of emergency financial aid grants to students. 

Some student employees said BC has not provided them with information outside of statements on the FAQ pages of the University website, leaving them with questions about how to proceed.

The senior student, who worked for Heights Catering, said on April 6 that she still had not been contacted by her supervisor.

“I haven’t heard anything at all from the University officially,” the student said. “I know they have a lot to deal with so I am trying to be understanding … but I just personally found it frustrating that they hid [the information] on the FAQ page now instead of sending out an email and letting people know, because if I hadn’t emailed my financial aid adviser and Student Services, I just would not have known.”

The student received an email response on March 25 from the Office of Student Services, which said that work-study students would not be paid for hours they would not be able to perform. When the student inquired why the University made this decision, Student Services was unable to provide an explanation.

“We really don’t know, or who made the decision, it was just handed down to us,” Student Services said in an email to the student on March 26.

When the student emailed her financial aid adviser on March 26, her adviser told her that the University would be unable to pay its students who were no longer working.

“Federal Work Study funds cannot be paid out to students if they have not earned it via hours worked,” her adviser said in an email. “The Department of Education guidelines were permitting students to still work at their work study job if they were still working hours on campus, despite classes being moved online. Without having done work hours, there is no way to pay you for those funds.”

According to the DOE’s guidelines, the adviser’s statement that students could not be paid without having earned the wages via hours worked is incorrect.

The unexpected economic strain that universities, particularly those without significant endowments to fall back on, are facing places many of them in a difficult position, where they must choose between laying off faculty and staff or cutting off FWS students, Kantrowitz said. When a university chooses to stop paying its work-study students, it shifts the burden onto the students, he said.

“There’s no entitlements to a work-study job, but it does put students in a difficult position because they may have been counting on that money to pay rent or pay their tuition bills,” he said. “If a college asked me, I would caution against doing that because it hurts students, and might force some students to drop out, like low-income students.”

Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor

One student who has found herself in a difficult position is Jessica Flores, whose parents do not contribute financially to her education or living expenses. She often sends them money from her work-study paycheck to help them financially.

“I have no income,” Flores said. “I got rid of my off-campus apartment because I wasn’t going to be able to pay my bills or afford food.”

The junior in the Lynch School voiced frustration with the University’s handling of the situation. She said that before the FAQ’s posting, she had to personally seek out information on her employment.

She emailed her financial aid adviser on March 16 to obtain some clarity and said the response she received left her optimistic that she would be provided some relief.

“My understanding is that the Department of Education has given colleges the authority to keep paying students from their work-study award, even though they are not actually working,” her adviser told her in the email. “As you may imagine details are still being worked out, so I’m not sure when you will get paid, or how much. I am sure our office will communicate with all work-study students, either by email or by an announcement of some sort on the website, as soon as we have concrete information to share.”

This information in this email, which was later followed by the University’s update on the FAQ page, gave her false hope, she told The Heights.

“She made it sound like it was more like a ‘when’ and not like an ‘if’ we would be paid,” the student said. “She also said they would communicate with me, and I’ve emailed them two or three times since and have had to press them on it.”

“I was definitely disappointed, and more than anything, I felt misled,” she said. “It seems completely unfair, especially without explanation. That’s my biggest thing—at least notify us.”

Flores said that the University’s response to the situation is a reflection of its routine approach toward her demographic.

“While the minority of students at BC are low income, I think that’s just a demographic that’s often completely forgotten about,” she said. “And in a situation like this, I think BC could have done more to assure that students had the resources that they needed.”

Abby Hunt contributed reporting.

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Archives

April 14, 2020