Washington public and private colleges, universities and trade schools will receive $223.5 million from the federal CARES stimulus act. They’ve already started distributing half of it to students whose educations were scrambled by the coronavirus.

But less than half the money allocated to Washington public institutions is going to community colleges, even though they educate more than two-thirds of Washington’s college students. And undocumented students at any school were excluded from receiving federal funds altogether.

Some critics say the money should have been allocated differently, and there needs to be more of it.

The funding formula was based on the number of students enrolled full-time, but many community college students enroll part-time, which probably resulted in “a shortchanging, or lack of investment, in community colleges,” said Reid Setzer, government affairs director for theEducation Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based policy nonprofit.

“We need to do more,” said U.S. Sen Patty Murray in an emailed statement in response to a query. “Federal resources absolutely should go to students and institutions with the most need during this crisis.”

Many students working their way through school were laid off from part-time jobs that helped them cover college costs, but aren’t eligible for unemployment because they worked too few hours. Many did not qualify for $1,200 stimulus checks because they’re listed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns. Their families may have lost jobs or income that helped pay the tuition bills. And some needed to invest in tech tools to help them take classes online.

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CARES Act money is only intended to help pay expenses related to the disruption of school operations due to coronavirus, and not to replace lost wages.

Twenty-four hours after Bellevue College opened up applications to students for emergency funding, the office had been flooded with requests from 600 students, said Brenda Ivelisse, associate vice president of student affairs. Students were asking for between $600 and $700.

The school, one of the state’s largest community colleges, will use $2 million of its $4 million stimulus allocation for emergency financial aid for students, and expects to help between 1,300 and 2,500 of its 30,000 students this spring quarter. Students getting the help will receive between $300 and $1,500.It is holding some money in reserve for students who weren’t able to attend spring quarter because of COVID-19 and instead will be enrolling in summer or fall classes, Ivelisse said. In addition, student government leaders allocated $100,000 to pay for laptops for students who didn’t have access to the technology.

“Students are finding the uncertainty hard, and there’s anxiety about finances,” Ivelisse said via email. “The isolation itself is a big challenge — staying motivated when you don’t have your routine or just missing daily social interaction with friends.”

Bellevue College’s undocumented and international students, none of whom can get federal funding, are “equally challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, and are struggling to make ends meet,” although the college does have some emergency funds it can offer to those students, she said.

Excluding DACA recipients was “a decision the secretary [of education] did not have to make,” Setzer said, since the legislation passed by Congress made no mention of undocumented students.

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Murray said she would keep pushing the U.S. Department of Education “to reverse their unauthorized guidance that restricts DACA recipients, undocumented students and other vulnerable students from receiving desperately needed financial support.”

Murray is one of 28 Democratic senators who signed a letter criticizing the decision to cut DACA students out of the funding.

Maria, a University of Washington junior, is one of the state’s undocumented students who doesn’t qualify for aid. Brought to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 2, she did not want to give her last name because of the possible termination of DACA, and did not want to be publicly identified as undocumented.

Maria said by email that her mother works as a housekeeper, and has lost several clients as a result of the pandemic — even as she felt she needed to continue working through the stay-at-home order while trying to maintain social distancing. That’s cut into family finances, making it harder for her to stay in school. She’s dipped into her own savings to help pay for food and family bills. She’s worried her mother could catch the virus while working. The family does not have health insurance.

Maria said she’s received some money from the Washington Dream Coalition, which has raised about $1 million to help undocumented families who can’t access government programs during the pandemic. Getting federal aid “would have been a lifeline,” she said.

Washington’s 34 community and technical schools educated about 363,000 students in 2018-19, but the full-time equivalent was about 170,000 students because so many go to school part-time. Washington’s public four-year universities and college educated about 150,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

Washington’s public colleges and universities received $184 million. Of that money, a little more than half went to the state’s five four-year universities and one college (The Evergreen State College), and a little less than half went to public community and technical colleges.

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The University of Washington this week began disbursing $11.8 million in CARES Act funds to 9,600 students across the three campuses. Students who qualify receive a check for $1,200; if they have dependent children, they’re eligible for an additional $500, said spokesman Victor Balta, who said there are some pools of money available for undocumented and international students, as well, including money from private contributions.

The school is setting aside another $8 million to give out based on a student’s actual situations and expenses, he said.

Some critics say stimulus money for college students in the federal CARES Act should have been allocated differently, and there needs to be more of it. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Some critics say stimulus money for college students in the federal CARES Act should have been allocated differently, and there needs to be more of it. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Some students who have been advocating for tuition rollbacks said they didn’t agree with the strategy. “Unfortunately, this isn’t a very equitable way of giving back because how do you deem who needs it the most during a pandemic?” asked Timothy Billing by email. The UW freshman, who’s active in student government,  has been campaigning for a $600 tuition reimbursement across the board. “What about all the families who have lost jobs or students who can’t find jobs at this moment?”

UW Provost Mark Richards said last week that the university will lose between $50 million and $100 million in housing, food services and athletics, and millions more for its role in providing health care through UW Medicine during the pandemic. The university is also bracing for deep cuts in state funding. That makes a tuition rollback unlikely, he said.

Washington State University, which received $10.8 million for student aid, is planning to disburse checks ranging between $500 and $1,500 to eligible students; some students will also qualify for an emergency grant if they are experiencing “exceptional circumstances.” And Western Washington University last week rolled out applications for students to request grants from the school’s $5.8 million in CARES Act money.

Setzer, the Education Trust government affairs director, said it’s worth thinking through how the process could be improved if there is another stimulus act, as he thinks there should be.

For example, Setzer questioned why any money at all went to for-profit colleges, which are businesses and, as such, are eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program and other treasury lending programs. In Washington, for-profit colleges and trade schools received $13 million, or 6% of the funding. One school, Charter College in Vancouver, received nearly $7 million.

Seattle Times data journalist Manuel Villa contributed to this report.