Just days after receiving federal relief funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Mercer County Community College (MCCC) has started issuing checks to students using a need-based formula that gets the funds in the hands of those who need it the most.
“We want to take this opportunity to help our students stay focused on remaining in school, and we want to base it on student needs,” said MCCC President Dr. Jianping Wang. “We want to be equitable, so it is fair to all students.”
The federal government recently announced approval of the $2 trillion CARES Act package, with $14 billion earmarked to help colleges, their students, and their families mitigate financial losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. New Jersey’s share is $323 million, with $3.85 million going to MCCC. Of that amount half – or just over $1.9 million – is slated for direct aid to students.
Even before the funds were distributed, Wang said MCCC began the process by reaching out to students. While some higher education institutions chose to distribute the student portion of the aid through a lottery system or by issuing a set amount to each student, Wang said MCCC opted to survey students and allocate funds based on need.
“We want to do it the right way – fair, equitable, and meeting student needs,” Wang said. “Our team is working hard to encourage students to stay on track in spite of daunting challenges, and very caringly and compassionately reaching out to each one of them to assess those needs.”
Dr. Gonzalo Perez, MCCC Dean of Innovation, Online Learning and Student Success, coordinated the effort that began with a brief survey designed to assess student needs in the key areas of food, housing, transportation, and childcare, in addition to tuition, learning materials, and technology resources.
“The questionnaire is a mix that combines questions regarding daily needs – rent, food, housing, childcare, technology – and what their plans are for attending Mercer,” Perez said. “Then we calculate the dollars that would meet those needs. We want everyone to know it is equitable, and provides students more funds to meet their needs during these difficult times.”
Perez said it was a challenging task, with college employees all carrying out their role while the college is operating remotely, but still needing to closely coordinate each step in the process. Each student is contacted personally by an MCCC staff member to better fully assess his or her situation, and to maximize benefits through other programs, if necessary.
Perez notes that to be eligible, the U.S. Department of Education requires completion of both, the 2019-20 and 2020-21 FAFSA Applications (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). MCCC continues to accept CARES Act applications at www.mccc.edu/CARES.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck project,” Perez said. “I think the college recognizes that this is an opportunity to really help our students. Our goal is to help as many students as we can in an equitable fashion until all the money is gone.”