The University received $9 million of CARES Act funding to distribute to low-income students due to the coronavirus, basing it on FAFSA forms on file. However, graduate students claim the University excluded them from receiving CARES Act funding. They felt they were uninformed about requirements to receive the funding, prompting them to create an online petition.
The petition, sponsored by United Campus Workers of Louisiana (UCWLA), demands the University extends the deadline to June 30 for students to file a FAFSA in order to be eligible to receive CARES Act funding, and the petition currently has 240 signatures as of May 28. Its goal is to reach 400 signatures.
"Many LSU graduate students have been excluded from receiving any CARES dollars allocated to LSU," the petition states. "This exclusion leaves many impoverished and uninsured graduate students hard pressed to continue their education, and recuperate unexpected costs due to COVID."
Anna McGill, a representative for UCWLA and an LSU grad student says that most graduate students don't fill out FAFSA forms because they don't want to take out loans.
"We don't qualify for the usual kinds of federal aid," McGill said. "We don't qualify for TOPS money or for subsidized loans or any of that stuff. So pretty much if you're filling out a FAFSA, you're filling it out to take unsubsidized loans out."
McGill had her FAFSA on file because she had to take out loans, qualifying her to be able to receive CARES Act funding, but she said the process could've been more transparent.
"I only found out about the CARES money because I woke up to an email from the bursar," McGill said. "There was no announcement that this was happening, no email, nothing."
Other graduate students, including recent graduate Preety Sidhu, did not have a FAFSA on file and did not receive funding because of it. She said she discovered the University had distributed its $9.8 million to some students via social media.
"LSU never communicated the criteria or deadline for CARES Act aid to students and point blank refuses to consider anyone who filed after their arbitrary deadline," Sidhu said. "Students started talking to each other on social media and that's when we realized what the criteria were."
Sidhu said she filed a FAFSA form on May 9 but said it wasn't approved until May 12. When she asked if she would still be eligible, the University's Financial Aid Office told her in an email they wouldn't accept it.
"The timeframe from when the regulations were released to the end of the semester did not allow time for us to notify students to complete a FAFSA for the spring semester which ended May 9th," the email stated. "We worked with the administration to devise a plan that worked within the parameters and timeframe we were given."
In a statement to The Reveille, Media Communications Director Ernie Ballard said, "LSU signed the funding certification and agreement for the CARES Act on April 13, 2020 and plans to use the funds to provide the mandated amount of at least 50% of the emergency financial aid grants to students. The criteria was outlined when we signed on for the funds."
The reasoning given for the May 9 deadline is any FAFSA form filed after would be for the 2020-21 school year. However, according to studentaid.gov, the federal deadline for filing a FAFSA form for the 2019-20 school year is June 30, 2020.
The peer institutions mentioned above ended classes earlier than the University did and were able to give students an extended period to file their FAFSA forms. The end of class for Mississippi State University was April 22, Auburn University ended April 24, Ole Miss ended classes May 1, and LSU ended classes May 1.
McGill and Sidhu believe the University chose the May 9 deadline and not to inform students to exclude grad students because many graduate students would qualify as low-income students.
"We contractually make below the poverty line," McGill said.
"The local living wage in Baton Rouge is $25,000," Sidhu said. "I made roughly half that."
The online petition echoes these concerns, saying "The University appears to have prioritized its own convenience over the needs of many of its students."
"The CARES money is federal money," McGill said. "So, if you're a federal taxpayer, you have an interest in holding LSU accountable for how they use that relief money."
Misty Saribal, a PhD student in communication studies, received funds from the University but wanted to know why she received the amount she did. Upon asking the financial aid office and graduate school, she was told it "wasn't their department," or "it was a decision made above their heads." She believes the University should have a website with information explaining how funds were distributed.
"We want to be able to go on the website and say, you have these millions of dollars, who got the funding?" Saribal said. "It's like the Wizard of Oz, right? Everybody says they're not the guy behind the curtain."
The Financial Aid Office could not be reached for comment.