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How the $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus bill leaves students out in the cold

| Thursday, April 2, 2020

The class of 2020 is about to break a record my own class of 2009 thought wouldn’t be broken any time soon: graduating into the worst job market ever. Today’s seniors might even have it worse — the coronavirus pandemic is much later in the year, causing companies to scramble their hiring plans, delaying start dates and even rescinding offers.

Much like last time, the government is scrambling to help. The $2 trillion stimulus package Congress passed is meant to help Americans get through (what’s shaping up to be) one of the most painful financial crises in history. The bill aims to help big corporations, small and medium-sized businesses, married couples who make under $198,000 a year and individuals who make under $99,000 a year.

Not on that list? College students, many of whom were asked to leave campus, their residence halls and their communities in March. Many of these students went into the COVID maelstrom already in debt: In 2019, the average college student owed almost $30,000, according to a report by The Institute for College Access & Success. An effort by lawmakers to write off some of that debt — $10,000 per student was what the proposal tried to erase — was shot down.

Now that it’s gone, the only help specific to students is a break from accruing interest on their federal loans until Sept. 30. Most students who have loans from private lenders don’t get that relief — they’ll have to contact their provider and ask for it with no guarantee their lender will be receptive. This is not enough.

Other students have lost the jobs they depended on to help pay their way through college. Some students don’t have a family home that’s accessible or safe to return to and may have to pay out of pocket for temporary housing until their campus reopens.

All of this amounts to a college student “donut hole” that manages to almost surgically avoid helping college students altogether: The $1,200 stimulus checks for individuals will largely bypass them. (The way the bill has been written means anyone who’s listed as a “dependent” on someone else’s taxes isn’t eligible for even a small check.) And their parents won’t receive the $500 the bill provisions for children because a majority of those students are over the age of 17.

This leaves students in a maddening middle-ground — where Americans both younger and older than them will receive a portion of the $292 billion in stimulus rebates while students themselves get nothing.

When asked about this issue earlier this week, a spokesperson for the Senate Finance Committee (which wrote the stimulus bill) told The Wall Street Journal: “Dependents, by definition, aren’t responsible for a majority of their financial support. … The goal of the recovery rebates is to provide support for Americans who are responsible for their own financial well-being or that of another during this pandemic.”

His implication is that college students aren’t responsible for their own financial well-being. But that’s not necessarily true, according to what I’ve seen, as a student myself and through my work with students at Boro, whose mission is to help cash-strapped college students get access to credit.

Tens of thousands of students are, in fact, “responsible for their own financial well-being,” contrary to what the Senate Finance Committee says. Many work part-time (and sometimes full-time) jobs while attending class. They pay rent, apartment deposits, utility bills and a welter of smaller daily living expenses like gas, transportation costs and groceries.

While student debt is a near-constant part of the national conversation, these smaller (but equally critical) expenses are a lesser-known problem. They may seem small individually, but they can quickly snowball into forcing someone to drop out of school: In a recent survey, 54% of students who’d dropped out of college said they did so because they couldn’t manage the demands of work and class simultaneously.

In other words, a lot of students are financially independent from their parents and have their own financial stressors. Many are already in debt. They deserve support as much as any American. They’re the future of this country.

If we don’t support them when times are tough, when will we?

Jose Duarte

Class of ’09

March 31

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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