The pandemic has robbed Ben Ellgen of the milestone moments he’s worked years to achieve.
The 21-year-old Winona State University senior will not get to walk across the commencement stage in May. His job prospects, and the nation’s economy, have been thrown into uncertainty. And he now worries how he will pay his rent and make payments on his nearly $40,000 in student loans in the coming months.
Adding insult to injury, the $1,200 stimulus check that will aid millions of Americans in these trying times will not arrive in Ellgen’s mailbox. He and other college students who are claimed by their parents as dependents get no aid under the federal $2 trillion coronavirus relief package known as the CARES Act. Dependents age 17 and older do not qualify for the payouts, and their parents won’t be eligible for the $500 child bonus.
“College students, we don’t have a lot in our savings. Lots of us … live paycheck to paycheck,” Ellgen said. “To not be receiving the CARES Act aid, that really affects us.”
Millions of college students across the country — including more than 425,000 in Minnesota — stand to lose out on the emergency relief payments if they are claimed as dependents. Other groups, such as some immigrants and frail or disabled adult dependents, also are ineligible.
Most college students shoulder steep expenses, from student loan debt to yearlong housing leases that can’t be broken, even in a pandemic. Many students have lost their jobs, and some are on the verge of food insecurity.
State officials are attempting to meet student needs by slashing loan interest rates and extending state grant eligibility, among other things. Minnesota colleges and universities will also be able to pass on some of the stimulus funding they receive to students.
Several Democrats in Minnesota’s congressional delegation have objected to the exclusion of adult dependents from the stimulus payments.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and Reps. Angie Craig, Dean Phillips and Collin Peterson have signed onto the All Dependents Count Act bill, which would update the CARES Act to expand the qualifying age of dependents to include college students as old as 24 and all adults with disabilities. Families would receive the $500 bonus for these dependents.
“It’s deeply unfair to Minnesota families that no credit is available for dependents 17 and older, including older children with disabilities and college students,” Smith said in a statement.
Some aid coming
The exclusion of dependents 17 and older has some precedents. It mirrors past stimulus packages during recessions, including the one in 2008, and follows the same age cutoff as the child tax credit.
This cutoff might have been the result of Congress leaning on precedents as members rushed to craft the stimulus during the pandemic, said Janet Holtzblatt, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center. It also could have been that members of Congress simply wanted to keep the cost of the package down.
No matter the reason, the snub still stings. The gap in stimulus aid has fueled anxiety for graduating seniors attempting to enter the workforce during an economic catastrophe.
University of Minnesota senior Levi O’Tool has had his internship hours cut because of the shift to remote work. A summer job he had lined up with the YMCA to help stage a global leadership conference in Japan also was canceled. The 21-year-old worries he won’t find a job until the pandemic subsides.
“I’m uncertain that I’ll be able to find a job, which will make covering the expenses that I have really hard,” said O’Tool, student body vice president at the U’s Twin Cities campus. The stimulus money would have covered two months’ rent in the house he stays in near campus. He said he may have to move in with his parents in Hastings if he does not have a job when his lease ends in August.
Minnesota college students will get some forms of aid from the state and their schools.
The Minnesota Office of Higher Education has added another semester of eligibility for the state grant program, even for students who have renewed the award for the maximum of six full-time semesters. The average yearly state grant award is $2,600.
The office also slashed SELF Loan interest rates to zero and suspended state work study requirements so that students with these jobs will earn wages through the end of the semester even if they cannot continue the work.
“We want to make sure that they continue to receive that funding that they were qualified for,” said state higher education Commissioner Dennis Olson.
Minnesota colleges will also chip in on aid for students. State colleges and universities will get around $180 million in federal stimulus aid to help soften potential revenue and enrollment losses from the pandemic. At least half the money must be used to provide emergency cash grants to students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The Minnesota State colleges and universities system — which serves more than 350,000 students — plans to spend half of the $93 million it received on direct cash grants to students.
More than three-quarters of Minnesota State students will receive some grant funding in the coming weeks, said Bill Maki, the system’s vice chancellor of finance and facilities.
Other colleges are still weighing how best to divide the aid. Some are considering bolstering their student emergency funds and others are pledging to target students who demonstrate the most need. “This emergency aid is potentially going to be incredibly impactful. I think it puts higher education institutions in a difficult position,” said Carrie Welton, a policy consultant for Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.
Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234