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COVID-19 Updates, Higher Ed, Podcasts, University News

The Bruno Brief: Brown & millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid

By , and
The Bruno Brief Team
Sunday, January 31, 2021

In the first-ever episode of The Bruno Brief, The Herald’s new weekly podcast that digs deep into a standout story from the past week, we talk to senior staff writer Mia Freund about the University’s plans regarding millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 stimulus funding. 

Under the new Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), signed into law Dec. 27, the University is eligible for $6.9 million in federal aid. In addition, Brown applied for $2.4 million in aid under the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act earlier in 2020, The Herald previously reported. But is the University applying for this latest round of stimulus funding? And where does Brown stand in the conversation about federal pandemic aid and institutions of higher education?

Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or listen via the RSS feed, and send us tips and feedback for the next episode: herald@browndailyherald.com. The Bruno Brief is produced in partnership with WBRU.

Ben Glickman 

I’m Ben Glickman, and you’re listening to The Bruno Brief. Each week, we take you inside one of The Brown Daily Herald’s top stories. This week, we discuss the millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid that the University has yet to allocate. The University is now eligible for $6.9 million from the Trump administration’s second COVID-19 relief package, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, that was signed in late December. Meanwhile, the University has still not allocated the $2.4 million it received from the CARES Act, the first COVID-19 relief bill in April. We’re joined by senior staff writer Mia Freund. Mia, thanks for being with us.

Mia Barzilay Freund 

Thanks for having me, Ben.

Ben Glickman 

So can you explain what the CRRSAA is and how it applies to Brown?

Mia Barzilay Freund 

I can, yes, it’s kind of a mouthful of an acronym. But basically, the CRRSAA is a Trump sponsored federal stimulus bill that was released on December 27 of 2020. There’s a whole section of the bill devoted to financial relief for the higher education sector, and providing monetary resources to institutions that have been hard hit by the pandemic, mainly because a lot of these schools don’t have students who can come to campus right now and study.

Ben Glickman 

So what does this money go towards for Brown?

Mia Barzilay Freund 

So for Brown, specifically, Brown can access up to around $6.9 million of federal funding under the CRRSAA. The breakdown of that money is roughly $2.4 million that is directed toward student support. That’s sort of how it’s characterized. And as far as I know, that student support mainly takes the form of providing emergency financial aid grants to students during the pandemic. Then $4.6 million, the rest of that package of funding, is targeted to supporting institutional needs. So, again, that language is kind of interesting to unpack. But I think that has to do more with the operational costs that have resulted from adjusting the campus to life during a pandemic, and other ways that the University has taken on new financial burdens because of the situation.

Ben Glickman 

And why might the University specifically need the money because of the pandemic?

Mia Barzilay Freund 

Lots of institutions of higher education have been severely impacted by the pandemic financially. And Brown is not an exception to that. The challenges that come from having to have a COVID-safe campus incur a lot of additional costs. I think at the same time, because of this state of global emergency, the University has to provide new ways of supporting students that are also costly. So all these things play a role in the sort of financial state of Brown and universities like it across the country right now. And again, the room and board piece is one that when I spoke with Kenneth Wong, who is a professor of education policy, and he’s the director of the Urban Education Policy Program here, he cited that as being sort of one of the primary challenges. When you don’t have students coming to campus, you have to waive the room and board charge. And that’s what keeps a lot of colleges and universities in business. So that’s, I think, one of the primary burdens at this time.

Ben Glickman  

So has the University decided to apply for this new round of federal funding?

Mia Barzilay Freund 

The University has decided that it will apply for the CRRSAA funding, but that’s sort of the extent of what we know about how they’ll be engaging with those funds. Vice President Cliatt, she made a point of saying that the University hopes to take advantage of all potential financial resources that could arise at this juncture. And so yes, Brown will be applying for this funding.

Ben Glickman 

So this funding was made available officially in late December. And we’re now at the end of January. Do you have a sense of why the University took its time in saying whether it would accept this new round of federal aid?

Mia Barzilay Freund 

Yes. So I think even on a national scale, the conversation about universities and particularly universities like Brown and its peers in the Ivy League — accepting this kind of federal support has been pretty charged. And so I think that Brown is stepping carefully when it comes to making decisions about this funding and releasing those decisions. And I think with regard to this latest round of stimulus funding from December 27, Brown has yet to release much information about that, because they’ve also — the University has yet to release much information about an earlier round of funding from March of 2020 under a Trump sponsored bill known as the CARES Act. We do know that Brown applied for that money. And actually many, many schools in the Ivy League — notably Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania — made very public and measured announcements turning down funding under the CARES Act. So I think in general, Brown is being very cautious about how it chooses to speak about this funding. And I think an announcement is forthcoming. 

Ben Glickman 

So this is not the first time during the pandemic that Brown has been made eligible for federal aid. Can you tell me a little bit more about the CARES Act and what it made available for Brown? 

Mia Barzilay Freund 

So the CARES Act, which was a Trump-sponsored stimulus package, released back in March of 2020, also made Brown eligible for federal funding to alleviate costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. And so, initially, Brown was eligible for up to $4.8 million of CARES funding. Now, the University only applied for $2.4 million of this funding, specifically $2.4 million that are specifically attached to the purpose of providing money for emergency student financial aid grants. That’s the only CARES money that Brown applied for.

Ben Glickman 

So some of Brown’s peer institutions, like you mentioned before, turned down aid from the CARES Act. Harvard, and University of Pennsylvania, for example, either did not apply for funding or later returned it after there was public pressure. Can you sort of explain a little more the controversy around generally well-endowed institutions accepting this federal aid? 

Mia Barzilay Freund 

Yes, I think this is probably the most interesting part of the conversation surrounding the stimulus money. In recent months, with increased financial pressures coming from the pandemic, a lot of the conversation has directed itself toward this question of whether the most elite institutions, the most financially well-endowed institutions in America, have an obligation to abstain from accepting federal support and letting those resources be channeled to institutions that might need that money more. And so as part of this kind of dialogue, Congress performed a little bit of a data breakdown where they assessed universities across the United States on the basis of endowment per individual student, and they generated a ranking of schools. After that, much of the conversation centered on schools that fell within the top 30 to 40 on this list of endowment per student value. And schools like Harvard, Stanford, Duke, notably, are part of the very, very top of this list. Brown, however, does not make the cut for the top 30 or so. And so I think this is why Brown has been treading lightly and taking a slightly different approach than some of its peer institutions. Even though we may be peers in terms of being members of the Ivy League, we’re not quite peers on the basis of endowment or endowment value per student. So because we’re kind of caught in this space where we don’t quite fit within the bracket of the most well-endowed schools — it’s not just a question of endowment, but financial resources — in general, Brown is in a different position when it comes to making considerations about accepting funding.

Ben Glickman 

Mia, could you give us some perspective, in specific terms, on how Brown compares to what we often think of as its peer institutions?

Mia Barzilay Freund 

Yeah, so in 2019, Brown’s per student endowment value was about $406,000. If we look at a school at Yale, another member of the Ivy League, the endowment per student was around $2.2 million. So I think that gives a pretty good sense of the financial divide that separates Brown from some of its peers. And then I think the other important thing to point out when we’re talking about the endowment is that it’s not really the be-all-end-all or the most representative number to look at in terms of available resources for a given institution. Something that Professor Wong was careful to note is that even if Brown has a substantial endowment, maybe not relative to a school like Harvard or school like Yale, but relative to other institutions across the country, a lot of endowment money is restricted, meaning that donors have very specific stipulations about how they want the money that they’re donating or adding to the endowment to be spent at that school. So the money that’s available for covering costs or covering pandemic related costs, specifically, slowly narrows and narrows, when we take into account those kinds of restrictions that are placed on the endowment.

Ben Glickman 

So we’ve established that Brown, unlike some of its peers, did apply for money from the CARES Act, somewhere in the region of $2.4 million, like you said. Has that been used for anything so far?

Mia Barzilay Freund 

I can’t give you a definitive answer about that, because I was not given one. And I think that the University will be able to give a more definitive answer in the near future. But at this point, we do not actually know how Brown plans to use money that it applied for through the CARES Act.

Ben Glickman 

So just so I’m clear on this, this $2.4 million that is required by law to go into students’ education in the form of financial aid has not actually been allocated by Brown, as far as we know. 

Mia Barzilay Freund

As far as we know, it has not. They are not telling us whether they’ve been given the money. All we know is they applied for it.

Ben Glickman 

So it seems like it could be the case that this money has been sitting unused by the University for all these months. Is that right?

Mia Barzilay Freund

Yeah, I think it could be. All we know is that they applied for the money back in April of 2020. 

Ben Glickman 

In a recent op-ed published in The Herald, three U-FLi students, which stands for Undocumented, First Generation and Low-Income, said that the University is not doing enough for them during the pandemic. And they specifically cite Brown’s indecisiveness, as they say, around taking CARES Act funds as one area where the University has failed to directly support students who need it most. Do you have a take on that?

Mia Barzilay Freund

I think that the op-ed you’re referring to captures a very valid concern for students who qualify for this kind of funding. And for these students, it’s pretty important that the University acts in a timely fashion. And unfortunately, that has not been the case with the way Brown has been managing the funding.

Ben Glickman

Mia, thanks for being with us.

Mia Barzilay Freund

My pleasure, Ben. 

Ben Glickman 

This has been The Bruno Brief. Our show is produced by Livi Burdette, Corey Gelb-Bicknell and me. The Bruno Brief is a collaboration between WBRU and The Brown Daily Herald. I’m Ben Glickman, thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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Produced by: Olivia Burdette, Ben Glickman and Corey Gelb-Bicknell

Special thanks to Emily Teng and Olivia Burdette for cover design.

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