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County's Colleges Allotted Funds From Federal Stimulus
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
02:29AM / Thursday, April 23, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The county's four colleges are in line to receive a combined $4.2 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, with at least half that money going directly to aid students financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
One provision of the $2 trillion CARES Act signed into law late last month is $12.6 billion set aside for institutions of higher learning, to be distributed based on a formula that factors in each school's Pell Grant recipients.
 
The grants to colleges and universities, which are administered by the Department of Education, made headlines this week when President Trump objected to the idea that Harvard University — with a $41 billion endowment — was in line to receive $8.7 million of CARES Act funds.
 
"Harvard should give the money back," the president said on Tuesday.
 
On Wednesday, the 400-year-old Cambridge school did just that, issuing a statement saying that while it faced economic challenges related to the pandemic, it would not accept the CARES Act funds.
 
"We are also concerned however, that the intense focus by politicians and others on Harvard in connection with this program may undermine participation in a relief effort that Congress created and the President signed into law for the purpose of helping students and institutions whose financial challenges in the coming months may be most severe," Harvard said in a Wednesday statement.
 
Locally, Williams College stands to receive $1,564,588 from the CARES Act. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has been issued $1,309,397. Berkshire Community College is slated to receive $1,052,143, and Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington is getting $312,339, according to figures on the website insidehighered.com.
 
By law, "at least 50 percent must be reserved to provide students with emergency financial aid grants to help cover expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus," according to a funding letter from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
 
MCLA Dean of Enrollment Management and Community Relations Gina Puc said Wednesday that the  public college in North Adams is working through how to distribute the federal dollars to eligible students.
 
"Those conversations continue to be ongoing," Puc said. "It seems like the Department of Education puts out additional guidelines each day.
 
"We're aligning our practices with what peer institutions around the state are doing."
 
The $1.3 million represents less than 4 percent of MCLA's annual operating budget of $35 million to $40 million, but the targeted relief will help, Puc said.
 
"With the half going directly to students, it really does make a difference," she said. "We're able to get money to students and families the minute they need it ... for emergency expenses, food, child-care, expenses of moving to a remote environment, transportation to get back home, that sort of thing."
 
Puc said MCLA's information technology team took the lead on making sure that students, particularly those who live in underserved areas of Western Massachusetts, had the internet access they needed to transition to a distance-learning model when the school's campus was closed.
 
"This is a testament to how nimble the MCLA community was," she said. "One of our goals was to be as equitable to all of our students as possible.
 
MCLA also began addressing the financial impact of the pandemic on its students long before the CARES Act was signed.
 
Within a couple of weeks of the school canceling in-person classes for the semester, MCLA launched its Resiliency Fund, which as of last Thursday had distributed more than $26,000 to more than 50 students in need to cover costs ranging from food to laptop computers.
 
"This CARES Act money bolsters that work," Puc said.
 
There is nothing in the federal legislation to prevent institutions from devoting more than 50 percent of the CARES Act fund to direct aid to students. In fact, Harvard on Monday told the school's newspaper that, "Harvard is actually allocating 100 percent of the funds to financial assistance for students to meet their urgent needs in the face of this pandemic."
 
Puc said it remains to be determined what percentage, if any, above the mandated 50 percent of MCLA's grant will go toward direct student aid, but she noted that the college incurred pandemic-related expenses, like purchasing additional licenses for software that must be used by students off campus.
 
An email to Berkshire Community College's spokesperson on Wednesday morning was not returned. Williams College's spokesperson Wednesday evening was not able to provide a comment.
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