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Trump's anger toward Harvard highlights dysfunction amid coronavirus response

This post has been updated to reflect Harvard’s decision to not accept any money from the CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.

Harvard was set to receive nearly $9 million from the federal government through a higher education relief plan amid the coronavirus pandemic, and President Donald Trump was angry about it.

But the allocation was actually determined by Congress — and the school denied even receiving any stimulus money.

“Harvard should give back the money now,” the president said in a tweet on Tuesday. “Their whole ‘endowment’ system should be looked at!”

At Tuesday’s White House press conference, Trump demanded Harvard pay back any coronavirus stimulus package, and again mentioned the school’s $41 billion endowment.

“I actually spoke to the president of Harvard already this morning,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Fox Business on Wednesday, later adding: “I think Harvard thinking seriously about whether it’s appropriate for them to keep the money or give it to other institutions that need it.”

President Donald Trump listens to a reporter’s question during a briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 21, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo)

However, a Harvard spokesman denied receiving any stimulus money or sending an application. (Only 50% of all eligible colleges have applied for the funding as of Tuesday night.)

“Harvard has not applied for or received any funds from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund,” Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Swain told Yahoo Finance. “We continue to review the additional guidance from the Department of Education related to the Fund and will make a determination as to whether we will seek to access the allocation that was made to Harvard by statute.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the school announced that “Harvard has decided not to seek or accept the funds allocated to it by statute. We will inform the Department of Education of our decision and encourage the department to act swiftly to reallocate resources previously allocated to Harvard.”

The school previously stated that it would refund room and board for students ordered to leave campus and pay thousands of dining, custodial, and administrative workers through May 28, 2020. Furthermore, the school said, 100% of the funds received from the federal government would go towards students.

The pressure on wealthy schools mounted further on Wednesday when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos singled out Stanford University as an example of how schools who don’t need the money should return federal dollars. Stanford was expected to receive around $7.3 million.

On Wednesday afternoon, DeVos applied more pressure on wealthy colleges with endowments, stating that they should all consider returning the funds they were allocated.

"Congress required by law that taxpayer Emergency Relief funds be given to all colleges and universities, no matter their wealth,” DeVos said in a statement. “But as I’ve said all along, wealthy institutions that do not primarily serve low-income students do not need or deserve additional taxpayer funds. This is common sense. Schools with large endowments should not apply for funds so more can be given to students who need support the most.”

She also stated: “It’s also important for Congress to change the law to make sure no more taxpayer funds go to elite, wealthy institutions."

‘The fault lies entirely with Congress’

If anyone is to blame for Harvard potentially receiving $9 million from the government, it was Congress.

“Congress said that they made a formula that was reasonably simple and easy to understand,” Seton Hall University’s Robert Kelchen told Yahoo Finance. “They could have tried to make it more complex to exclude colleges with large endowments. But changes like that could have slowed down the entire stimulus package. And the whole goal here is to get money out the door as quickly as possible.”

And in creating a blanket formula, Congress’ actions have led to situations like Harvard’s and Stanford’s.

“The fault lies entirely with Congress,” Ben Miller, VP of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, told Yahoo Finance. “It created a formula that put all institution types together and made all colleges that participate in federal aid eligible. Once it did that, everyone from Harvard to Jay’s Technical Institute was going to get something.”

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue look on during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in the press briefing room of the White House on March 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

That formula for the higher education relief was derived from two factors. First, 75% of the funds will be awarded to the school based on its share of full-time equivalent enrollment of Pell Grant recipients who were not enrolled exclusively in distance learning prior to the pandemic, relative to the total full-time enrollment of such individuals in all higher education institutions. 

The remaining 25% will be awarded to the college based on the share of full-time enrollee students who are not Pell Grant recipients and and were not enrolled exclusively in distance learning prior to the pandemic. 

Hence, it made some sense that schools like Liberty University, which has a “large on-campus operation,” will get $15 million. Liberty University’s total enrollment is more than 100,000, according to the university’s website. Around 12,600 undergraduates and 1,200 graduate students were on campus.

Miller conceded that the formula was fair. “The major flaw in what ED did isn’t really around the formula methodology,” he added. “It’s the cruel limitation to only students eligible for federal financial aid.”

In the second tranche of funds released on Tuesday, the Education Department tacked on a new condition for the distribution of funds: It excludes students who do not have a Social Security number

In other words, most international students and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students are deemed to be ineligible to receive funds despite the economic cost of the pandemic.

Aarthi is a writer for Yahoo Finance covering consumer finance. She can be reached at aarthi@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami

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