When Congress allocated money for higher education in the coronavirus rescue package, it set aside nearly $350 million for colleges that had "significant unmet needs."
Most of that money has now been allotted by the U.S. Department of Education to small, private colleges that serve just a fraction of U.S. college students. Meanwhile, public colleges — which serve more than 70% of all college students — are facing a steep drop in state funding.
The 20 institutions that received the most amount of money from the unmet-need fund serve less than 3,000 students combined, and about half are religious schools — including Bible colleges and seminaries — several of which serve less than 100 students.
Lawmakers designed this unmet-need fund to give priority to any higher education institution that has received less than $500,000 through the CARES Act's other pots of funding. As a result, a school like Virginia Beach Theological Seminary, which serves 47 students, is eligible to receive $496,930 in federal aid.
"Imagine you had a special reserve fund to deal with a big crisis and you spent over 90% of that in one fell swoop on vacation tickets," or something that "wasn't as necessary in the moment," says Ben Miller, the vice president for postsecondary education at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Miller argues larger public colleges, including community colleges that serve tens of thousands of students, should be getting more financial support. He calculates the department allocated more than $320 million of the $350 million on relief for small colleges, most of them private.
"As a result, they only have about 8% of the dollars they originally got here left to help any other college in the country that might be most affected," he says.
As with other CARES Act funding, in order to receive the money, an institution would still need to request it from the Department of Education.
Much of the CARES Act's more than $14 billion for higher education is being distributed according to the number of full-time low-income students a college serves, which is measured through federal Pell Grants.
The $350-million unmet-need fund followed a different formula. Miller says for this particular pot, schools that did not receive $500,000 or more from other available CARES Act funds were given the difference between what they did receive and $500,000 limit.
"So the result is that the smaller you are and the less money you've already gotten, the more you get from this program," Miller says.
But $350 million can only go so far. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was given the discretion to choose which schools would benefit from the fund, and by how much.
Some schools were baffled when they learned they had been allotted hundreds of thousands of dollars in relief, and many weren't aware they were even eligible for the money. Brad Smith, the president of Bakke Graduate University in Dallas, which was allotted $497,338 in federal aid, says he didn't learn of his school's eligibility until he was contacted by NPR.
"I don't know anything about this," Smith says, noting that his school hadn't asked for additional federal help. "I'm taking responsibility to find out what it means."
An Education Department spokesperson tells NPR, "In order to receive this funding, an institution will need to request it. Any institution that does not need this money should simply decline to request it so schools will not be in the position of having to return unneeded funds."
The department says, once the requests are processed, any remaining funds will be redistributed through competitive grants.