The funny reason why BYU is getting more coronavirus funding from the federal government than the University of Utah

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Utah’s colleges and universities will collect more than $130 million as part of the federal aid package meant to provide relief during the coronavirus pandemic.

At least half of that money must go directly to helping students here — many of whom have lost their campus jobs and have had to shift quickly to online classes — so that they can stay in school. But there is a big difference across the state in what share of the funding each institution is getting and how much they will be able to provide back in return.

Westminster College, for example, has been granted the least of any public or private university here, pulling in $1.9 million from the stimulus package known as the CARES Act. That makes sense because the Salt Lake City school has the fewest number of students enrolled.

However, Brigham Young University in Provo is getting the most: a whopping $32.3 million.

That’s nearly two times as much as the University of Utah — the state's flagship school, which has roughly the same size student population — will receive as it picks up $18.7 million. And it’s a quarter of the total amount of money for all of the state’s higher education split over 10 schools.

So why is BYU, a private, religious college, raking in so much? The reason is kind of funny but also very “Utah.” It has to do with young people getting married.

The federal aid for colleges during the virus is based on a complex formula. But put simply, it grants funds based on the percentage of how many students at an institution qualify for Pell grants. Those grants are calculated by need and awarded to students each year in low-income households who need help paying for school.

Up until a student is 24 years old, they have to include in their application for the grant what their parents make (unless they are independent). That’s used to determine how much a family could contribute to tuition. Those in families making a combined $50,000 or less are generally eligible for higher awards.

Now here’s the part where marriage comes in. If a student gets married before he or she is 24, they can now put down their income and their spouse’s — and leave their parents off. For most college students who are married, that will mean a much lower total income. Therefore, they will be eligible for more grants.

At the more conservative BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a higher percentage of undergraduate students are married than at the U. and other Utah colleges; most estimates put it at 25% of the student body.

“That's so much more,” said U. spokesman Chris Nelson with a laugh.

That plays out with grants. According to numbers from the 2018-2019 academic year, 6,930 University of Utah students received Pell grants. At BYU, 12,126 students — about double — received the grants, which would match the extra federal funding for the virus (though not all recipients are married).

Both schools have about 32,000 students.

A spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education also confirmed the marriage explanation.

The pattern holds, too, when you look at the next highest federal aid award for a Utah college: Utah Valley University, which sits near BYU, in Orem. UVU will receive $22.9 million from the virus stimulus package.

The school has 42,000 students and 13,597 received Pell grants in 2018-2019. A high number of students there, too, belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU, and are also married, Nelson said.

“There’s a higher percentage there, as well,” he noted. School records show that about 14,000 there are married. At BYU, with its smaller enrollment, it’s about 8,000.

Barb Smith, a spokeswoman at UVU, said the school also functions as an open enrollment system with low tuition. Accordingly, more students there are eligible for grant support to pay tuition, and many are first-generation college students.

"We serve a community that looks more like a community college," she added.

The other universities in the state fell in the middle, with Utah State University getting $17.4 million, for instance, and Weber State University collecting $11.7 million, according to a list of the allocations.

As far as using the funds — no matter how they got them — all schools must allocate half to student support. That could include providing financial aid, so students can continue their studies in the fall, or creating more paid campus jobs. U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wrote in a letter to colleges that they should help “students whose lives have been disrupted, many of whom are facing financial challenges and struggling to make ends meet” during the pandemic.

About $13 billion, total, will go to colleges across the country.

At the U., Nelson said, they will subsidize tuition with the hope that more students will stay and finish their degrees. At UVU, Smith noted, it’s not clear yet how they will spend the money, but it will likely be similar.

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said in an email, "Assisting our students with their needs is our first priority. We have not yet made any other decisions in regard to CARES Act funding for the institution."

In addition to the $130 million going to higher education, Utah will receive another roughly $100 million for classrooms for a total $230 million in funding.

About $68 million of that will go specifically to public K-12 schools, including charters, overseen by the Utah Board of Education. State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said during a board meeting Thursday that the funds will “really help with bridging the gaps that we’re seeing.”

The money will be used to address challenges in getting materials to students, such as buying more laptops or providing extra tutoring when classes resume in person after the outbreak.

Additionally, $29 million for education will go to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s office to distribute.