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The U.S. Education Department on Thursday made available the $21.2 billion in help to higher education included in the coronavirus relief legislation Congress and President Trump approved in December, but undocumented students could be left out of getting help through emergency student grants again.
Meanwhile, billions more in aid could be on the way. President-elect Joe Biden on Thursday also released a summary of the $1.9 trillion relief package he is planning to propose upon taking office, including another $35 billion in help for colleges and universities.
“The president-elect’s plan will ensure colleges have critical resources to implement public health protocols, execute distance learning plans, and provide emergency grants to students in need,” said a fact sheet of the proposal obtained by Inside Higher Ed. “This $35 billion in funding will be directed to public institutions, including community colleges, as well as public and private Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other minority-serving Institutions,” said the document marked “confidential.” The document did not mention most private colleges and universities.
This summary said also that the proposal “will provide millions of students up to an additional $1,700 in financial assistance from their college.”
As for the latest round of approved coronavirus relief, it will allow more flexibility on how colleges and universities can spend the money than in last spring’s CARES Act, and allows for more students to be eligible to receive emergency student grants. It was unclear if undocumented students are again being left out of getting help like last time, higher education lobbyists said. But Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, and Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education’s senior vice president for government relations, said their analysis of guidances released by the department is that undocumented students are ineligible for receiving student grants, as in the CARES Act.
Drager called on Biden to make it clear these students can get the help when he takes office next week.
Former education secretary Betsy DeVos, in a move blasted by higher education leaders, denied CARES Act grants from being able to go to those who are ineligible for federal student aid. According to an FAQ released by the Education Department, that order does not apply to this latest round of money.
That will allow students not eligible for financial aid for reasons like having poor grades or having defaulted on repaying student loans to get emergency grants as they struggle with the ability to pay for housing and equipment like computers during the pandemic. "We're ecstatic that potentially millions of students will be eligible for aid who shouldn't have been denied it in the first place," Draeger said.
Previously, the department argued that undocumented students who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children were not eligible for aid because federal law bars them from receiving any federal aid.
Federal judges in California and Washington ordered an injunction on DeVos’s restriction, allowing undocumented students to receive the grants in those states. But they were barred elsewhere.
Those on a call with education officials Thursday said there was no mention of undocumented students, and a department spokeswoman wasn’t able to answer the question definitively last night.
The $21.2 billion COVID-19 relief to higher ed institutions represents only a sliver of the $120 billion associations representing colleges and universities had requested. However, according to figures released by the department that listed what each institution would receive, millions of dollars in aid will be heading to institutions struggling with the financial fallout of the pandemic. Topping the list are Arizona State University, which is receiving $112.9 million, then $110.3 million headed to Miami Dade College, and $88.8 million going to the University of Central Florida.
The latest relief bill requires colleges to spend at least as much of the money on student grants as was required in the CARES Act. Arizona State, for instance, has to spend at least $31 million on emergency grants, leaving $81.1 million for the university’s other needs. But because the latest package provides more help than the $14 billion for higher education in the CARES Act, the department said the latest round will provide more money for institutions’ costs. Arizona State, for instance, received $63 million in the CARES Act but was required to spend half of it on emergency grants, leaving $31 million to help defray the costs of the pandemic.
“The $23 billion in higher education funding is not commensurate with the enormity of the challenge facing public universities, but it will be very helpful to institutions and students,” said Craig Lindwarm, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ vice president for governmental affairs.
"The department is working quickly, yet again, to ensure taxpayer-funded COVID relief allocated by Congress gets to those who need it most. I would encourage leaders of our higher education institutions to use this funding as former U.S. secretary of education Betsy DeVos suggested during the first round of relief -- to support students who are struggling financially in the wake of this pandemic and to build IT and distance learning capacity for now and in preparation for the future," said Acting U.S. Secretary of Education Mitchell Zais.
Under the relief bill, for-profit institutions will only be able to use their share of the money to give aid to students, not to help the financial picture of the colleges or universities.
“The $681 million will help support a lot of students who are financially struggling with things like rent, food and health care,” said Nicholas Kent, senior vice president of policy and research at Career Education Colleges and Universities. “Institutions are also incurring considerable unexpected costs because of the pandemic. Our hope is any future COVID-19 relief legislation also provides additional institutional funds for proprietary institutions, like the CARES Act. Our institutions are no different in how they need to respond by upgrading distance education technologies, purchasing PPE and sanitizing classrooms.”