COVID-19 relief bill leaves college students out in the cold

Illustration of college grad looking at wallet
Olivia Staser/Staff

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It’s good news for many people that the federal government is injecting $2 trillion into the U.S. economy to pull the nation through (what could turn out to be) one of the worst recessions in modern history.

It’s good news for small businesses, families, married couples and individual workers because that $2 trillion includes $292 billion for people struggling to pay their bills and make ends meet. Married couples making less than $198,000 a year and individuals making up to $99,000 annually will receive a direct deposit (or a check in the mail) from the federal government, with most people’s checks being $1,200.

But one population it is not good news for? College students, as they have been woefully left out of this equation.

To get a check, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act requires you to have filed a tax return in 2018 or 2019 and to have not been marked “a dependent” on anyone else’s taxes. Many (if not most) college students are named as dependents on their parents’ taxes, making them ineligible for aid.

The bill also gives families with children $500 in extra assistance for each child they have — for children up to age 17. Since the vast majority of college students are older than 17, their parents will get nothing on their behalf. In other words, college students are in a Medicare-style “donut hole” where they are not considered children nor adults.  

Despite the fact that they may have been claimed on their parents’ tax return, many students desperately need financial help, and they need it now. As The Daily Californian has reported, a number of UC Berkeley students have already lost their jobs and wages due to virus-related business closures. That’s not limited to UC Berkeley — it’s afflicting students across the country. 

New data from the Pew Research Center has found that young people will be disproportionately affected by the surge in layoffs now hitting the U.S. “Among the 19.3 million workers between the ages of 16 to 24 in the economy overall,” Pew found, “nearly half are employed in service-sector establishments,” such as restaurants, bars and retail stores. Those who lost their jobs may not qualify for unemployment benefits, depending on how long they were working and how many hours they are able to work now.

Contrary to popular belief, many college students are financially independent. They pay rent, utility bills and transportation costs. They pay for groceries, car repairs and parking tickets, just like any other adult. With campuses closing, and many residence halls going into lockdown, many of these students have had their lives upended. They’ve been forced to relocate. Many have gone home to stable families who, thankfully, can provide for them until this blows over. 

Others aren’t so lucky. They may not have a safe home to return to. Even if they do, they may not be able to afford a plane ticket to get there, especially if they’re an international or undocumented student. Some may not even be able to eat without a meal plan, as freelance journalist David Perry pointed out in a viral tweet in March. (A staggering number of college students report being “food insecure,” meaning they don’t have consistent access to enough food for a healthy, active life.)

As an international student at UC Berkeley who hadn’t established credit in the U.S., it was entirely on me to build my own financial stability. My company, Boro, offers loans to college students who are in the same position that I was in.

We need to do more to support our students, the very generation of people who, in a few years, will become our doctors, teachers, lawmakers and journalists. And if we don’t invest in them now, how can we expect health and prosperity in the future?

Yifeng Ouyang is a UC Berkeley alum and is currently co-founder and chief operating officer of Boro, a Chicago-based startup that helps college students gain affordable access to credit.