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‘I’m Counting on It’: Many College Students Left Out of Stimulus Checks Education Groups Spot Gaps in Safety Net

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Above image credit: When the economic stimulus package was sent out, some college students were left out. Now they're in financial limbo. (Adobe)
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5 minute read

Three years ago, Caio Castro moved to Lawrence from Brazil to study at the University of Kansas. 

Castro is a graduate teaching assistant, so he earns a small salary while he pursues his graduate degree. He paid taxes, and filed an income tax, but didn’t get a $1,200 federal stimulus check following the COVID-19 outbreak.

A Caio Castro Facebook post
“May this world get rid of this pandemic soon!” Caio Castro wrote on his Facebook page. (Contributed | Caio Castro)

“This scenario is pretty scary for me,” Castro said. “I’m not going to earn the stimulus check, and I am counting on it.”

The check – coined as an “economic impact payment” – is part of the federal government’s $2.2 trillion stimulus package under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) designed to help people and businesses.

The stimulus money from the federal government could have provided students like Castro financial relief during statewide stay-at-home orders prompted by the pandemic. But college students are slipping through the cracks.

Here’s the problem. Many college students are still listed as dependents by their parents, so they aren’t eligible for their own full $1,200 stimulus check. But they also are too old to qualify as children under the age of 17, which would make them eligible for a $500 stimulus check. In addition, international students are not U.S. residents so they aren’t eligible.  

Like many graduate students, Castro isn’t promised a job during the summer. As a result, he could be out of money by June.

“I’m struggling,” Castro said. “Yesterday for example, I had several vivid dreams and I woke up crying… It’s definitely been affecting my mental health.”

Money Matters

So, who gets the check? Primarily, U.S. citizens or residents with social security numbers, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Checks are given to those who: 

  • Filed single, made less than $75,000 
  • Filed head of household, made less than $146,500
  • Filed jointly, made less than $198,000 
  • Cannot be claimed as a dependent

Who isn’t eligible? 

  • Some students, such as international students, and those age 17 through 23 who can be claimed as dependents,
  • Some adults with disabilities who live with their parents,
  • Elderly people who are claimed as dependents, and
  • Mixed-status families if one of the tax filers doesn’t have a social security number. (There is an exception for military families.)

Maite Salazar, a candidate for U.S. Congress in Missouri’s Fifth District, is outraged because some of the people who are left out may need it the most.

“There’s no definite that you’re going to get unemployment, a stimulus check, or that you’ll have enough food on your table,” Salazar said. “It’s absolutely devastating to students, immigrants, and people (with disabilities).”

Salazar recently launched KC Gig Worker Economy, a Facebook group dedicated to connecting vulnerable communities to resources and information, particularly for those in the gig economy. Salazar said there’s more help coming from “the people” than the federal and local governments.  

University Budgets

College budgets, which were already tight, are under mounting pressure due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

With campuses closed and students and their families unable to pay for tuition or deferring enrollment, universities in Kansas and Missouri are taking a hit as revenues nosedive. 

On April 1, Missouri Governor Mike Parson announced a roughly $180 million budget reduction for the fiscal year, which ends June 30. These cuts gut funding for four-year universities in the state by $61 million. Community colleges will see a reduction of about $11 million. 

This has prompted action by university leaders. C. Mauli Agrawal, chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, told department leaders by email to cut their budgets by between 12.5% and 17.5%, anticipating layoffs and furloughs.  

In Kansas, area universities also face uncertainty. The colleges will remain fully funded, for now, according to the recently passed budget, but it could still be amended. During an April 20 news briefing, before an official forecast was released, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly hinted at budget cuts. 

But university budgets were already tight. Last year, the University of Kansas cut its budget by $20 million. Similarly, Kansas State University asked departments to shave 4% off their budgets. 

“We don’t know fully what kind of help we’re going to be able to get from the federal government,” said University of Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod. “We don’t know yet the impact on the economy, on the society, and on the university.”

According to the forecast by the Kansas legislative research and budget department, Kansas will “collect $1.2 billion less over the current and next fiscal years.” It expects a $653 million budget deficiency. 

The forecast also predicts a 5% dip in gross domestic product, according to a Wichita Eagle report. With less state revenue, Kansas universities are at the same risk Missouri universities are facing. 

The government said more than $13 billion of the trillion-dollar CARES Act will go to public and private colleges, with half of that going toward student grants to help students in need with anything from food insecurity to technology for class.  

But education support groups, such as the American Council on Education, say the federal aid given through the CARES Act is not enough. In a plea to congressional leaders, the groups say institutions need around $47 billion in federal aid to “at least partially restore” what’s lost. 

Here’s how it adds up. About $23 billion would be lost to a decline in enrollment, according to a letter penned by Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, which forecasts a 15% drop in overall enrollment during the next academic year. 

An additional $12 billion would help students and families in need and another $11.6 would restore loss of funding made through housing, bookstores, recreation, food and health services. 

And since students aren’t using these services, some institutions are reimbursing students for these fees.

For now, university administrators, students and staff are in financial purgatory.

A little bitter’

Reimbursements and a stimulus check could have helped students like Maggie Mannebach. 

Mannebach is set to graduate in May with her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She also works as an intern at Wilson & Company. But because she’s 21 and her parents claim her as a dependent, she won’t receive a check.  

Maggie Mannebach, college student, smiles with her dog on campus.
This is a photo from Maggie Mannebach’s fundraising event on campus last spring. She said they raised $5,000 for Ronald McDonald House but this year’s event was canceled. (Contributed |Maggie Mannebach)

“That (money) would have been very helpful to deal with the transitions of undergrad graduation and make up for the lack in work I’ve had since having to work from home,” she said. 

What should have been a “carefree” last semester for Mannebach turned into a new way of life. Suddenly, her daily routine of studying at a coffee shop morphed into studying at her parent’s house in Kansas City. Plus, she was in the middle of a move that’s now on pause because of the pandemic. 

“It really doesn’t feel like I’m getting a college degree. I’m a little bitter about it,” she said.

Although Mannebach acknowledges her situation is better than it is for other folks, she feels the strain. The unknown makes her nervous. She’s in limbo, waiting to graduate and begin law school next semester. For now, she waits. 

“We’re doing the best we can.”

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