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Sunday, May 22, 2022

As students struggle to pay bills, $2 million sits unused in government relief

Winters in Madison can be brutally cold, with temperatures dipping below freezing for most of the season. 

The possibility of not having heat or a home is a situation no one wants to consider, but the inability to pay rent and utilities is of major concern for students who are struggling to make ends meet. 

Some low-income, undocumented and international students are in danger of not having housing or the ability to pay for utilities. Continuing their education at UW is at risk as a result of current structures in place that prevent them from receiving financial aid to cover expenses that exist outside of tuition. 

These UW students have been hit especially hard with the loss of campus jobs and lack of financial assistance toward living expenses due to the pandemic. 

ASM funds

In an effort to alleviate the financial strain experienced by their fellow classmates, the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) in January created a COVID-19 Student Relief Fund. The board voted to expend excess student and reserve funds totaling $2 million to be dedicated to the COVID-19 Student Relief Fund. 

In a referendum posed at the beginning of March, UW-Madison students voted strongly in favor to put leftover student fees toward a COVID-19 relief fund to assist in covering rent payments for students in need. University administrators say this approach is illegal because according to state law and System policy, students cannot receive direct aid from student fees. ASM is attempting to use $2 million from the council’s unspent reserves to create this relief fund. 

ASM President Matthew Mitnick felt positive about the establishment of the fund and the possibility of putting dollars directly into the hands of his fellow UW classmates experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic when the idea was first proposed. He was expecting some push-back from UW but was not prepared for the lack of cooperation from the university. 

In Mitnick’s opinion, ASM should maintain control of how these student funds are spent, and says he is disappointed the university won’t release the funds. 

“I just feel that the university could be not only more transparent, but that they could do more than just the bare minimum for what they have to do with positive public relations,” said Mitnick.

Vice-Chancellor of Finance and Administration, Laurent Heller and Chancellor Rebecca Blank have argued that ASM’s COVID-19 Student Relief Fund violates UW System Policy 820, which controls how the segregated university fees are administered. As outlined in Policy 820, segregated fees cannot be provided by UW directly to individual students.

"Campus leaders made a good-faith effort over the past year to work with student leaders on emergency financial support," UW Spokesperson Meredith McGlone says. "Unfortunately, student leaders insisted on moving forward with essentially the same proposal, which cannot legally be implemented."

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Mitnick explained the proposed distribution would be handled by the Tenant Resource Center, a local non-profit organization for off campus housing, who would be paying landlords and rental agencies directly. In doing so, the university’s concern of a policy infraction would be eliminated because third party dissemination is not specified in Policy 820. This workaround would allow the unused collected fees to be allocated to pay living expenses of students who apply for assistance. 

In January, UW-Madison received approximately $29 million in a second round of stimulus from the federal government. Of that total, only $9 million was distributed to students in need of assistance. 

UW says they are following the directions of the government by spending an equal amount of the second round of relief as was spent from the first round of funding, despite receiving more money. 

"UW–Madison recognizes the extraordinary challenges students have faced due to the pandemic and began providing emergency assistance before the first federal stimulus package," McGlone said. "Every dollar of the first $19 million in federal aid went to students, either in direct aid or refunds for Housing/Dining fees."

The process to receive the funding is complicated, according to Juliana Bennett, a UW student running for District 8 Madison City Council. After applying for assistance, one may or may not qualify and actually receive relief, she explained. 

The first round of student aid went fast and, according to Bennett, many were left out because of their immigration status, and were forced to drop out of school. Others are ineligible as international students or because they haven’t previously filled out FAFSA forms. She says she believes the university isn’t doing enough.

“How horrendous does it look for the university to deny necessary relief to students during a pandemic,” Bennett said. “I would think that providing relief to students would be awesome and something that university would be totally behind.”

The funds in question are segregated student fees that have been used for on campus student  activities in the past. Given the lack of gathering on campus due to social distancing restrictions, the money has remained unspent. 

There are two arms of segregated fees: the first is allocable and relates to Chancellor-approved student activities, and the second is non-allocable and pertains to a variety of fixed expenses such as bussing, athletic facility usage, operating and debt service costs. 

ASM believes this relief fund is the fastest way to help students who are ineligible to receive assistance through the financial aid office. It appears the university is inclined to assign these dollars elsewhere.

“I think that the biggest reason why there's backlash on using the $2 million in ASM reserves for the student relief fund is because the university has another agenda for [the money],” Bennett said. “The university is willing to put students' lives at risk and students’ ability to get necessary relief at risk, just for them to line their pockets more.”

Mitnick said he thinks that if the administration were to sit down and listen to ASM’s plans, then they would understand why there is no conflict with the UW policies and allow the release of the accumulated fees for pandemic student relief. 

McGlone says that student leaders could choose to move forward on distributing funds a different way, but that the legislation currently drawn up goes against school rules.

Help available

While the battle over the ASM relief fund continues, the UW Foundation is raising funds to continue contributions to the UW-Madison Emergency Student Support Fund to bridge the gap. 

McGlone says nearly $10 million has already been distributed to over 9,000 students, which composes nearly 21 percent of the school population, with an average of nearly $1,100 given per applicant.

"Every student who has requested emergency aid for highly urgent needs due to the pandemic has been awarded funds," McGlone said. "Students could use the two recent rounds of COVID-19 assistance for any expenses."

Although there is some other aid being given to students via private funds, no official numbers have been released as of yet. 

Other campus resources are available to struggling students, including Office of Student Financial Aid (OFSA). OFSA assistance can be accessed through the UW student portal, and appointments can be made using the Starfish tool. The Dean of Students Office is also able to connect students with resources.

Still, Mitnick believes UW should do more to financially assist students, starting with transparency over how they are spending the second round of COVID-19 relief. 

“I have heard personal accounts of people having to take out additional loans or having to drop out of school altogether because of their financial situation,” said Mitnick. 

As the pandemic continues to affect life on campus and beyond, there is hope for the students who are in danger of dropping out of UW due to enduring financial difficulties. It is possible those students will soon benefit from additional federal funding aimed to alleviate financial stress to college students in a future round of relief. 

Or, if ASM and the university are able to come to an agreement to distribute the unused segregated fees to students in need, those who require assistance can receive necessary funds through ASM. 

Update: This story was updated Monday, March 29 to add comments from UW Spokesperson Meredith McGlone.

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