College Student Financial Health: Stimulus Checks and Emergency Funds at UWB

Written by: Shalman Ahmed, Yaozhen Zhang, Robert Szolosi, Andrew Endzell, Dobin Jeon, Alina Luy; student reporters

Like many people, university students have been struggling with complex financial and educational situations. Many students were not eligible for the COVID-19 related federal stimulus checks due to being claimed as dependent on their parent’s taxes. For others, it was a matter of citizenship. There are multiple criteria the IRS uses to determine residence status, including the Substantial Presence Test.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced students to reexamine and unexpectedly apply financial skills they otherwise wouldn’t be using. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that most people paid off expenses, but there isn’t much information on university students. 

For students, the stimulus checks can either be beneficial or unnecessary. A senior student from the University of Washington Bothell, Anders Wennstig, is one of the many who did not receive one. “I feel a little bit confused. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to get one or not, because the qualifications are a little bit confusing, and people are saying you will get one or you won’t get one and I really don’t know what the truth is. About not getting one, I feel lucky that I don’t need one to pay my rent or eat. But I also feel potentially cheated, like if I was supposed to get one I want the money because I could use it for sure.”   

Harry Nguyen, another senior, said that receiving the stimulus check helped him out. Most of the money he received was used to pay for college tuition and to support his family. “I am personally financially stable where I am but my mom actually lost her job recently due to the pandemic. So I actually had to help her along the way and support her financially and be the giver”, he said. 

The rest, he put away in savings. “I actually invested a good 80% of my stimulus. I put it into cryptocurrency, Roth IRA, and a little into stocks to watch that investment grow into the future”. He had to be financially stable to keep his family and his education afloat, which was greatly helped by the additional stimulus checks given to him and many other students that received it as well. 

Some of the students who do not receive Stimulus checks are international students. Most international students stay in the United States without U.S. citizenship, so many of them didn’t receive the stimulus check. One of those students is senior Tony Jung.

He never received one because he is an international student and he doesn’t meet the qualifications to get a stimulus check. However, Jung mentioned that people who have stayed in the United States for more than 5 years are qualified to get a stimulus check.  He said that he does not have any challenges with money, “because my parents support me”, and he added, “That’s why I could study here. If my parents don’t have enough money, I might not be here.”

On top of stimulus check eligibility, international students are also not being able to go back to school. Some choose to return home or do part-time gig-work, such as Uber or Doordash. Still, once they get a work visa or permit, they will receive a $300 check per week from the day they obtain it.

Yalin Zhao, a graduate of UW mathematics, owns a company called Isea Group. His opinions on stimulus checks are different from that of most people. He thinks the stimulus check has saved many people on the verge of bankruptcy but makes many low-income people unwilling to work. He said that he thinks some people will be lazy at home because some payments are not as high as government subsidies. He prefers the government to turn stimulus checks into loans to motivate people to work, and the University of Washington Bothell does offer loans as a financial aid option.

For the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, the way students and the financial aid department responded to this crisis says a lot about their adaptability and perseverance. Understanding their experiences provides insight on how this campus got through the rough time that was 2020 and early 2021.

Danette Iyall, the assistant director for the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office on the UW Bothell campus, is one of only two staff members in her department who said that and saw a large increase in financial aid requests come into her office coinciding with the pandemic and remote learning.

“[I]t’s been very noticeable in the number of requests that have come across my desk,” said Iyall. Even so, she expressed satisfaction in how her department handled the surge. “[D]epending on…how many students we see in a day, students are able to sit down face to face and speak with a counselor…I think overall, with the two of us, it’s been doable. It’s been ok.” 

Regardless of Financial Aid’s effectiveness, it doesn’t change the fact that the CARES act, among other federal emergency funding, isn’t available for international students. Short-term fund loans are an option and are available to any currently enrolled UW student. “There is no interest attached to the loan but there is a one-time $30 processing fee,” said Iyall. They don’t go through her office, but she describes them as a way “to get you through this moment until your actual funds arrive later”. 

The financial aid department also reacted to the plight of students by making some adjustments to their satisfactory academic progress, or SAP, policy. For the 2020 winter and spring quarters, some credit requirements were lessened to give students room to breathe during that time.

“[I]t is something that says…we will keep you eligible, you are still eligible because we understand that COVID impacted you somehow, someway, whether its job [related], whether it’s you [and/or a family member who] were being treated medically, things like that. We want to acknowledge that something was unusual and extraordinary that was happening,”

Danette Iyall, Assistant Director of the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office

Even with the struggles students were going through on campus, she felt that the financial aid department was still there for its student constituents: they understood the situation and reacted.

For those who have received the stimulus check, the biggest question is what is the best and most efficient way financially to spend that money as a college student.

Helen Andrews, a personal finance professor at the University of Washington Bothell, said that  “I think the first thing you want to do with your stimulus check is to get some of those bills paid off if you have any old bills or any bills that you are behind on to try to get those paid down. And these can be essentials. And they can also be anything that you’re falling behind like utilities, or your health insurance is really important to keep that current. And then after that, anything that you’re paying interest on.”

Helen continues to mention that if students do not have an emergency fund, she recommends starting one as soon as possible. The old convention used to be used for at least three to six months worth of expenses, however, for students, that can be a very large amount of money that would take a very long time to save. She states that potentially cutting down expenses such as eating out, can help in saving a small portion of money every month.

Helen concludes with “new clothes, extra clothes, some of those things you can cut down to zero, but your rent, your cell phone bill, you know, your internet, those kinds of things that you have to pay for, you want to add all those together, and then maybe figure out how much that is that you spend every month that you really those essential expenses”.

“Time is your biggest ally when you’re saving for retirement. So starting young is a really good thing.”

Helen Andrews, Personal Finance Professor

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