College students who are veterans of the U.S. military could be disproportionately denied emergency aid grants under the CARES Act because of the way the Education Department is interpreting congressional intent in passing the coronavirus relief package, according to a report from Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit advocacy group.
At issue is a ruling by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that only students who are eligible for federal student aid can receive the grants aimed at helping students with the costs of having their lives disrupted by the closure of campuses by the coronavirus pandemic, like finding places to live if residence halls are shut down.
Campus financial aid administrators have complained that the only way to tell if someone not already receiving student aid would qualify for the grants is if they have filled out Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms. “If institutions interpret this to exclude students who have not filed a FAFSA, many student veterans will be left out,” the group said, noting that students who receive GI Bill benefits do not apply for regular student aid.
Citing Education Department survey data, the report said that in the 2015-16 academic year, 36 percent of undergraduate student veterans did not file a FAFSA, compared to 29 percent of nonveterans. “However, the generosity of the GI Bill does not mean that campus-based student veterans were not affected by the disruptions caused by coronavirus,” the report said.
The department has said it is only implementing the emergency grants based on the language of the CARES Act. But the California community college system is suing the department, saying Congress didn’t require the emergency grants to go to students who qualify for other aid, and that the interpretation excludes undocumented and other students.