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Education Department Limits Emergency Aid Causing College Access Advocates to Worry

The U.S. Department of Education has officially excluded students ineligible for federal financial aid from receiving coronavirus emergency aid under a regulation made public on June 11.

Doubling down on its original guidance to universities, the department notably excludes undocumented and international students, among others, from relief funds under the CARES Act, a decision announced a week before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program could continue.

“U.S. taxpayers have long supported U.S. students pursuing higher education, and this rule simply ensures the continuity of that well-established policy,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “Today’s action helps erase any uncertainty some institutions have expressed and helps make sure we can support America’s students facing the greatest needs. We have a responsibility to taxpayers to administer the CARES Act faithfully, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Advocates for college access aren’t so sure. Many are concerned that the formalized limits on emergency aid are too restrictive, barring more than a million students from the funds for technology, course materials, food, healthcare and childcare.

Before the regulation was issued, the department was already embroiled in two federal lawsuits over the exclusionary nature of its guidelines, one suit from California Community Colleges and another from Washington state. Both won their cases against the Department of Education the week after the interim formal rule came out, meaning schools in those states will not impose all the department’s limits on CARES Act relief for students.

Making undocumented and international students ineligible for emergency aid is “cruel and unnecessary,” said Viviann Anguiano, the associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. Undocumented students are particularly at risk during the pandemic, she said, with many working in service industries or living in mixed-status families that can’t receive other forms of federal aid like stimulus checks.

In its statement on the regulation, the Department of Education explicitly excludes “foreign nationals” and “non-citizens” in order to “help to ensure taxpayer-funded coronavirus relief money is distributed properly.”

While some institutions, like the University of California and California State University systems, have reached into their own pockets to offer emergency grants to DACA students, DACA recipients make up slightly less than half of all undocumented students, Anguiano noted, still leaving many in the lurch. Plus, institutions are increasingly tightening their budgets in response to cuts in state funding, she said.

The regulation also excludes students who wouldn’t qualify for financial aid for other reasons like low grades or defaults on federal student loans. And given the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA, is the easiest way to assess if someone is eligible for financial aid, it’s possible that anyone who doesn’t or can’t file the form won’t be considered, regardless of their need.

For example, student veterans don’t file the FAFSA because they’re eligible for the GI Bill. And amid the pandemic, more students aren’t filing in general. The National College Attainment Network found that FAFSA renewal applications are currently lagging for students from the lowest income backgrounds compared to last year, with about 240,000 fewer returning applicants with annual incomes of less than or equal to $25,000 since May 31. These students, even if low-income, may not be able to receive the CARES Act emergency aid.

“Those are probably the students who need the financial aid the most,” Anguiano said.

The problem isn’t just who’s excluded but the process by which they were excluded, noted Dr. Dominique Baker, assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University.

She criticized the way in which the Department of Education came out with the regulation and how it created “confusion” over the procedure. After CARES Act funds were already sent out to colleges, the department issued guidelines, later clarifying they were non-binding when universities questioned the late recommendations. Some back-and-forth followed: The department suggested it would release a clear rule on June 9, then indicated it would need another week, then announced the regulation two days after the original date.

“At the end of the day, we want emergency aid to get into the hands of students,” Baker said. “That’s our goal. We want students to be able to weather the pandemic. So, every step along the way where we create confusion, where we make it more difficult for institutions to get that money to students … that harms our students.”

She worries about retention rates, calling the stakes “incredibly high” for students with delayed access, or now no access, to these funds.

The department framed the measure as a way to protect against “waste, fraud, and abuse” from universities, arguing institutions might use the funds to “create cheap classes and programming that provides little or no educational value” and use those offerings to lure students ineligible for financial aid to boost enrollment.

While Baker acknowledges the importance of “accountability” – and that bad actors exist – she finds it hard to imagine “the systematic, large-scale type of graft that would require this type of rule” during a pandemic.

She described limiting emergency grants to students eligible for financial aid as an example of the “administrative burden” theory: the more difficult it is to access a public benefit, the less it will be used and the less it will help. This eligibility standard is no different, she said.

“We often find more rules, more policies, when benefits could go to individuals in marginalized communities,” she said. “We’re all in the same pandemic. Some people get asked a lot more questions before they’re allowed to receive money.”

Sara Weissman can be reached at [email protected].

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