Students express frustration over CARES Act transparency as DePaul juggles budget


Bianca Cseke | The DePaulia

DePaul University Lincoln Park campus.

DePaul may have a cash crisis on the horizon, according to Chief Financial Operator Jefferey Bethke. 

“You could imagine a situation where revenue has declined so sharply that we don’t have enough cash for our payroll,” Bethke said at a Faculty Council meeting on April 8. 

The administration has also asked departments not to spend money, and has implemented a hiring freeze. 

The liquidity crisis is juxtaposed with the fact that the university will run a modest operating surplus for fiscal year 2020, which ends June 30, according to Bethke. The surplus is mostly due to an anonymous $12.5 million donation the school received in December 2019. 

However, the school refunded approximately $14 million in tuition after campus was effectively closed in March. It also cancelled tuition increases for the 2020-21 school year, leading to a $13 million decline in previously planned tuition revenues. 

“Cash levels ebb and flow during the course of any fiscal/academic year,” Bethke said in a statement via email. “[The] concern is that we continue to have sufficient cash or ‘working capital’ on hand to meet the ongoing operating needs of the institution.”  

It is too soon to tell what the overall financial loss could be. The impact of factors like out of state enrollments, the degree to which continued social distancing requires reduced class sizes or continuation of remote teaching and the nature of on-campus housing are not yet known.  

“Given the unfolding economic crisis, felt broadly and deeply across the entire economy, we think it is reasonable to assume, as students grapple with unanticipated challenges and hardships, that enrollments will decline by some amount in the coming year, but we do not yet have a basis for estimating by what proportion,” Bethke said. 

The school received just over $14 million in funding from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund that was a part of the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act passed by congress last month. About half of that money is legally required to be given as aid to students. However, the law doesn’t stipulate how the school should dole out the relief money to its students or what the other half of the funding should be used for. 

Allocation of the money is set to begin in June, but the school is still in the process of determining how it will be distributed

Last Wednesday, Bethke convened an advisory panel, the CARES Act Student Distribution Subgroup, to assess the schools options. 

Ahmed Zayed, chair of the department of mathematical sciences, was asked to be in the subgroup —what he described as a “brainstorming” committee for how to handle the funding. He was the only faculty member present; the rest were administrators including Bethke, Interim Provost Salma Ghanem and the president of the Student Government Association, Gisselle Cervantes. 

Zayed said all DePaul students will get some amount of money, but the criteria for determining how much each student receives were the main topic of discussion. He said the schools is considering whether everyone will get the same amount or if it will be a sliding scale based on need. 

“Some students obviously need more support than others,” Zayed said. “It should be based on needs more than just across the board.” 

Although discussions like this are ongoing, the school has yet to put out any official information, causing distress for some students. Senior Kara Keene was frustrated after she reached out to the Office of Financial Aid and was told they had no information about the funding, although they suggested she apply for the Student Emergency Assistance Fund (SEAF). 

“I’ve seen schools that have portals to apply for the funding when the funds are dispersed from the government,” Keene said. “It’s extremely frustrating to me that DePaul can’t even confirm for me when I ask if there is going to be a plan in general.”

Cervantes, brought to the school’s attention that students were looking for transparency surrounding the distribution of the CARES funds. They then asked her to be a part of the subgroup. Cervantes says they discussed the guidelines set by the Department of Education and how they could distribute the funds in a way that follows those guidelines and serves the students. 

“There was a group consensus that every student has experienced some sort of hardship during this time; however, there was also consensus that some students have experienced immensely more hardship than other students,” Cervantes said. “So there were suggestions to distribute some sort of baseline aid to all students, but with more opportunities for funding for students who are in more difficult circumstances.”

Zayed said they are also looking for guidance based on the plans of other universities. He said committee members were Googling what other schools, like University of Illinois Chicago, are planning to do with their funds.

“That is one of the things we’re supposed to be investigating at the next meeting,” Zayed said.  

Zayed’s daughter is a graduate student in the College of Education and said his family wouldn’t take the aid offered to his daughter.

“There are other people who need it more than we do,” he said.

Keene is also concerned that, as a graduating senior, the school won’t distribute the funds to her if the money isn’t dispersed until after graduation in June. She wishes the university would put more of an effort into making their process more transparent to the student body.  

“It would have been helpful from the Financial Aid Department to know that there was even a discussion going on,” Keene said. “It’s a worrisome time to know whether you’re getting help or not.”

Cervantes says the panel, which is set to meet three more times, has just an advisory capacity and that they will pass their suggestions to the final decision makers. Cervantes sees herself as a conduit from the students to the administration. 

“By bringing the student voice to conversations about important topics like the CARES Act distribution, I advocate in hopes that decisions are made in the best interests of the students,” Cervantes said. “They wanted to know more generally what students were saying about the CARES Act distribution.” 

Zayed said there will be a separate meeting to discuss the other half of the funding that won’t necessarily be directed into students wallets. There is also trepidation amongst adjunct faculty concerning the threat of personnel cuts, prompting a petition to be created and circulated asking that DePaul leadership consider collective strategies in minimizing the job loss and asking that some of the CARES Act funding be used towards that end. 

He said they will meet again next week to make a final recommendation on how to allocate the money. 

“Everything is projection,” Zayed said.