Congress offered a lifeline to college students facing financial insecurity in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but the Trump administration is restricting who can receive help.
Guidance issued Tuesday by the Education Department narrows student eligibility for the nearly $7 billion in emergency grant aid set aside in the stimulus package. Only students who can participate in federal student aid programs can receive money, a stipulation that effectively shuts out undocumented and international students.
Collectively, that’s at least 1.5 million college students, according to the latest available data. And that’s not accounting for the scores of others who could be left in the lurch because of the way the guidance is written.
The department said students who have not submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, can still receive grants, but it is requiring colleges to confirm details, such as registration with selective service, that are most readily found on the form.
“I don’t know what school would ever use anything but a FAFSA to be able to say that students meet all of the eligibility requirements outlined in the FAQ,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “There are a significant number of people who don’t fill out the FAFSA, and those people certainly accrued expenses related to covid disruptions. I don’t see how they’ll qualify.”
Asked about the new eligibility parameters, Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said, “Congress set Title IV eligibility under the Higher Education Act, and we are using that criteria.”
Critics of the department’s guidance say the agency is being inconsistent. The funding agreement colleges have been asked to sign says the department “does not consider the emergency financial aid grants to constitute federal financial aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act.” If that is the case, it makes no sense to use the statute to determine eligibility, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University.
“The authorizing legislation and the certification agreement clarify that this is not Title IV aid,” Goldrick-Rab said. “But that didn’t stop [Education Secretary Betsy DeVos] from waiting until the last minute and then unnecessarily excluding … some of the most vulnerable individuals from this support. It is nothing short of cruel and unnecessary.”
The Cares Act directs schools to give students money to cover expenses such as food, housing, technology, child care and health care, but the legislation left it to the Education Department to flesh out the terms. And the department initially passed the responsibility onto schools.
But the lack of clear guidance from the agency about who was eligible for the money and how it could be disbursed gave colleges and universities pause. Many were concerned about the legal ramifications for their institutions and students if any missteps were made. Higher education groups urged the department to develop a Frequently Asked Questions document to clear up the confusion.
Higher education leaders and advocacy groups had hoped the broad language of the Cares Act provision left open a window for colleges to help undocumented students receiving immigration benefits under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program for immigrants brought to the United States as children. Despite a 1996 welfare law barring such students from getting federal assistance, some thought the provision in the stimulus law could supersede the prohibition.
“It’s unfortunate that institutions won’t be able to directly support DACA and international students with this aid,” said Luis Maldonado, vice president for government relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “They are members of the academic community and contribute to the important work of learning on campus.”
Nearly 5,000 colleges and universities will benefit from the stimulus funding. Public institutions will receive the most, $4.5 billion, while private, nonprofit schools will get about $1.2 billion. For-profit schools will receive more than $500 million, according to the Education Department.
The department reported Tuesday that nearly 50% of schools that are slated to receive aid have applied, nearly double the amount the agency reported last week. The program was off to a rocky start. The website where colleges had to submit documents was down for hours at a time, and some schools that had never used the portal had trouble registering. Even schools that successfully completed the process said they were still waiting for the money.