As of Dec. 31, 2020, Utah State University distributed more than $7.8 million in federal and institutional-donated funds to current students suffering hardships due to the coronavirus pandemic. Through funds gathered from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, as well as USU’s Emergency Hardship Fund, the university provided financial aid to 11,491 individual students in the total of $7,831,385.27.
“The welfare of our students is our top priority,” said President Noelle E. Cockett. “Many of our students have faced unanticipated financial hardship as part of the pandemic, and we have worked tirelessly to find ways to assist them in continuing their academic pursuits. We thank the private donors to our Hardship Fund for providing an additional avenue to support our students.”
USU received $17,428,745 through the CARES Act in April, and the U.S. Department of Education requires at least 50 percent be distributed directly to students. The remaining portion is being used for university COVID-related expenses. Of that $8.7 million allocated to students, USU disbursed $7,540,170 in funds during the 2020 calendar year. In total, 10,977 USU students received some form of grant under the CARES Act in 2020.
“We did our first disbursement at the end of spring semester 2020, just weeks after we received the funds,” said Robert Wagner, Vice President for Academic & Instructional Services. “This money went directly to students who qualified under FAFSA eligibility and who had experienced a loss associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
USU has distributed funds from the CARES Act in three separate initiatives. The first initiative in May 2020 saw the university distribute $4,088,485 in grants to students, ranging anywhere from $250 to $800 based on financial need. In July, USU issued an additional $2,140,500 in grants in the form of technology grants of $300, intended to help students pay for technology and services to aid them in their technology-enhanced classes for Fall semester. A third initiative of grants was distributed in December totaling $1,311,185.
Congress announced additional CARES Act funding that will go toward higher education in the coming months. With $1,174,202 remaining in its original allotment, USU is awaiting the additional dollar amount and stipulations so it can best plan on how to distribute the combination of funds to students. The university has already planned an additional technology grant for new students in Spring 2021.
“As soon as we find out what our additional allotment will be and how we can disburse it, then we’ll begin working with the president and other administrators on the most effective way of getting the money out to students who qualify,” Wagner said.
An additional 514 students received financial aid under USU’s Emergency Hardship Fund, totaling $291,215.27. The Hardship Fund was formally created in 2013 under the direction of Vice President of Student Affairs James Morales. The fund, which is financed primarily by university donors, provides grants to students who have encountered circumstances that otherwise would cause them to drop out of school. Seeing that some USU students might not qualify for CARES funds, Morales worked with President Cockett and Matt White, Vice President for Advancement, on using the Hardship Fund to complement the CARES Act.
“When the pandemic emerged, we began to see more acute needs,” Morales said. “Several hundreds of students have been helped just from the Hardship Fund alone.”
A one-time grant of up to $750, students who qualify for a Hardship Fund grant can receive aid on expenses unrelated to academic pursuits, such as monthly rent, unexpected medical expenses or other qualifying needs. The fund also is able to aid international students at USU. Students who receive these grants are under obligation to account for dollars spent, providing receipts to the university to prove the grant was used appropriately.
“Using the Hardship Fund to help students during the pandemic was a huge priority to President Cockett,” White said. “We had students that needed support and relief from a wide variety of situations.”
The Hardship Fund uses money contributed to the university by donations to the Office of Advancement. These donations can be made online, over the phone or through the mail.
“We talk a lot about the Aggie family,” White said. “This is really the Aggie family coming together and taking care of our students and doing something profound for them.”
University students have submitted hundreds of thank you notes filled with words of gratitude to the university and to donors for the aid they have received from the Hardship Fund.
“When we received notification of [this] grant, we were struggling to recover from temporary loss of employment due to COVID-19,” said Julie, a USU student. “I had been in and out of the hospital the month before due to medical issues. It felt like life had kicked us while we were down...repeatedly. Receiving word that we would not have to worry about food for a few weeks was an immense and timely relief.”
Said Chase, another student, “On behalf of my family and I, I’d like to sincerely thank you for the donation that you have made to help me get through this challenging time in my studies. Without your help, I don’t know that I would be able to continue studying at Utah State, and for that I am truly grateful.”
Having read multiple emails like the ones above, USU officials see every day the significant influence the Hardship Fund is having on students.
“This fund is not just about giving out money,” Morales said. “It is about making a lasting impact in students’ lives.”