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SC colleges begin distributing millions in federal student coronavirus relief funds

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Some 20,000 students at the University of South Carolina were alerted last week about available funds they could claim and use toward expenses associated with campus closure and COVID-19. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Thousands of college students across South Carolina might have recently received a few extra hundred dollars in their bank accounts.

Colleges in the Palmetto State have started distributing millions of dollars, provided through the federal coronavirus relief package authorized by Congress in March, to students in need.

Collectively, South Carolina colleges and universities will receive more than $175 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Schools are required to distribute at least half of those funds, or around $88 million, directly to students who have been impacted financially by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most colleges across the state have opted to distribute these funds in the form of one-time relief payments, ranging from $400 to $1,000.

Many have decided to provide these funds automatically to students who are Pell Grant eligible, meaning they come from low-income families and are supported via various local, state and federal scholarships. Others have allowed students to submit applications explaining why they need assistance.

For some college students, a few hundred dollars can have a large impact. Widespread campus closures and the following transition to online instruction has shed a light on the wide economic disparities some students face.

As unemployment claims continue to rise, the number of food-insecure college students has also increased, Marketplace reported. Some students don’t have ready access to reliable internet, while others have been forced to pick up multiple jobs to support their families.

“We've had students that can't even afford to get diapers for their kids,” said Teri Karges, Charleston Southern University’s director of financial aid and veterans services. “It definitely hits it on a human level.”

Charleston Southern announced last week its plans to distribute around $1.4 million in federal coronavirus relief funds directly to students. Half of the funds will be divided between all Pell Grant eligible students, who will receive their allotment first. The remaining funds will be distributed to students who will go through an application process.

“We want everyone to have access to it if it's needed,” Karges said.

How much each student will receive can vary on family income, household size, the number of enrolled credits and how severe a student has been impacted by the pandemic, Karges said, but individual awards won't be more than $2,500.

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After the coronavirus relief package was signed into law, colleges snapped into action to figure out how to best distribute millions of dollars to students in need. But there isn’t much guidance available from the U.S. Department of Education how those funds should be distributed or how much students should receive.

For some students, the emergency federal cash grants might come as an unexpected surprise.

Some 20,000 eligible students at the University of South Carolina were alerted last week about available funds they could claim and use toward expenses associated with campus closure and COVID-19 — no application required.

The process was designed that way on purpose, said Joey Derrick, USC’s director of student financial aid and scholarships.

“We went out and found the folks that are eligible and made awards to them upfront,” Derrick said.

In total, the university will distribute around $10.7 million to students. As of Friday afternoon, most of those grants had already been distributed Derrick said.

S.C. State University released plans on Tuesday detailing how it will distribute some $2 million in coronavirus relief aid to students. The amount each student receives will vary by student but will be from $500 to $1,000. Funds will be posted on students' accounts sometime around the end of May. 

The Citadel, College of Charleston and Coastal Carolina University have all outlined their plans to distribute federal funds to students. In the Upstate, Clemson University students were provided with one-time grants of $500 to $1,000 in early May, The Greenville News reported. Winthrop University and Lander University have also distributed funds to students.

Josh LeClerg, a student at Winthrop, said the $550 grant he received last week will help him with paying for rent and food while he continues to search for a job.

“It will help me make ends meet for a month, which is huge,” he said.

According to guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education three weeks after the CARES Act was passed, only students who are eligible to receive federal financial aid can qualify for the emergency relief grants, leaving international students or DACA students ineligible.

Prior to announcing plans to distribute federal funds, many colleges across the state created donor-funded COVID-19 emergency relief funds to provide immediate assistance to students in need.

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

Jenna Schiferl is a Columbia native and a reporter at The Post and Courier. She has previously worked as an editor at Garnet & Black Magazine.

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