Financial aid staff works overtime to get CARES Act funds to students

Director Roberta Johnson and the student financial aid team distributed more than $10.8 million in federal COVID-19 emergency grants to 7,206 Iowa State students last summer, part of the dollars Congress directed to universities in its $2.2 trillion CARES Act. And while that amount is a fraction -- about 2% -- of what the team awards annually in aid to students, it proved to be a labor-intensive process to find eligible students most in need.

"This was an enormous lift for us because we really couldn't use the financial aid system we've built over 45 years. We did all of the sorting and reviewing ourselves, which probably made the process a bit clunky. But it worked," Johnson said, noting they were pressed to award the money quickly and IT staff "were a precious commodity" since they were diverted to retooling courses for online instruction for summer and fall.

Between confirming final aid awards for fall and counseling incoming students and parents during virtual orientation, late spring/early summer already is a hectic time of year for her staff.

More sources for emergency assistance:

  • Cyclone Strong fund
  • International Students and Scholars office
  • Graduate College scholarship funds
  • Cyclone Success completion grants
  • Completion grants (from an ISU donor) for students who are underrepresented in their academic area
  • Emergency gifts from two corporate donors to the University Innovation Alliance distributed among member schools

"There were a lot of long days and late nights to navigate this, get these dollars on the system -- and get our other assignments done," she said. "The dedication of staff members to pull this together and get funds to students was phenomenal."

And because CARES Act eligibility focused on spring semester students with a 2019-20 FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) on file -- effectively eliminating international students and students living in the U.S. without legal permission -- the student financial aid staff also coordinated $404,258 of emergency funding from a handful of campus sources (see sidebar) to assist another 355 students.

Getting it done

All students applied for emergency assistance through one Qualtrics survey. Funds could be used for many costs tied to the price of attending college such as food, housing, medical care, child care and technology, impacted by the pandemic. Financial aid staff filtered the applications to confirm FAFSA eligibility and then started working through individual requests -- and all the funding options -- to award and disburse grants into students' bank accounts as fast as possible.

"We were brokering all this to figure out which students could receive money from which funds," Johnson said. They developed a few guidelines for CARES Act-eligible students:

  • Requests of less than $2,000 were fully funded in an automated process. (The smallest award was $50.)
  • Requests of more than $2,000 (up to $3,000) received a review from a staff member for the final award amount.

Johnson said awards above $3,000 were possible, but not common. Overall, the average grant from CARES Act funding was $1,505. Of the eligible applicants, 83.5% received CARES Act financial help, she said.


Spring 2020 Cyclone students awarded CARES Act funds


Students served

Total dollars







   U.S. non-resident









   U.S. non-resident







By early June, nearly 90% of the funds were awarded to applicants. To avoid overspending the CARES Act funds, Johnson and her staff adopted a new strategy, block grants, to distribute the last $1.3 million to two student groups:

  • $1,120 grants to 908 spring semester students whose FAFSA expected family contribution to their education was $0 and who hadn't received CARES Act funding through the application process.
  • Grants up to $1,900 for laptop purchases to 315 eligible students who had applied to lease a laptop from the library under the university's laptop requirement. Interim library dean Hilary Seo shared student lease applications with Johnson, who cross-referenced those applicants with her FAFSA database.

One more time

Congress' December Coronavirus Relief Bill will send exactly the same amount -- $10.8 million -- to Iowa State for direct aid to students.

Johnson said her office probably will rely more on block grants to award much of the funding to spring-enrolled students. The goal is to disburse all funds by August, but a majority will be awarded in the next month.

"Students need this money now. The stipulation again is that we find the students with the greatest need, so we're going to look at our federal Pell grant recipients rather than set up an application process," she said. "We'll hold a portion, perhaps $1 million, to help students who really have extraordinary circumstances beyond their Pell grant eligibility."

Another difference this time is that student recipients may opt to apply all or part of their award directly to their university bill. Funds last year had to go to student bank accounts.