Education department starts disbursing relief funds, but questions remain

The Department of Education last week shared how much each institution will receive of the $14 billion set aside for higher education in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and officials are starting to distribute the portion allocated for emergency grants to students. Higher education leaders, however, say they’ve received limited guidance on how they should disburse those emergency relief funds to students, or when campuses will receive the remaining funds earmarked for other COVID-19 related costs and disruptions. 

Maximizing impact of emergency aid funds

Through the CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, the federal government is providing $6.28 billion for institutions to give emergency aid grants directly to students who have been adversely affected by the pandemic and need help paying for things like child care, housing, food, and other basic needs.

While the Department of Education recently clarified that colleges and universities cannot use the funds to reimburse themselves for emergency aid they already provided to students, federal officials are otherwise giving colleges “wide latitude” in deciding how they want to distribute the funds, according to Inside Higher Ed. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is encouraging college leaders to find a way to prioritize students with the greatest need while establishing a cap on grant size to ensure broad distribution.

In a new brief, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Carrie R. Welton from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University offer recommendations to help institutions maximize the impact of their CARES dollars. Noting that students’ COVID-19-related needs will be substantial and stretch on for months, the brief urges institutions not to “simply cut checks to all students in universal fashion.” Rather, the brief calls on institutions to use an assessment and rationing mechanism—one preferably not tied to FAFSA data, given recent widespread job losses and students’ rapidly changing circumstances.

Specifically, Goldrick-Rab and Welton recommend an application that quickly signals whether a student is facing conditions that render campus supports important and considers whether “students are enduring food or housing insecurity, or have children, are from minoritized communities, or are LGBTQIA or system-impacted.” They also call on colleges to optimize their approach for equity and fairness, collaborate with other institutions, and share excess funds should their CARES allocation exceed their students’ needs.

What about undocumented students?

Some stakeholders also have asked whether they will be able to make the aid available to undocumented college students who were brought to the United States as children, a group generally ineligble for federal financial aid. “We absolutely hope that they’re eligible,” Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government affairs at the American Council on Education, told Inside Higher Ed by email. “But given the uncertainty that surrounds this question, it’s important that the department provide clear guidance to campuses.”

Hoping for more but working to deliver relief in the meantime

Though the CARES Act dollars have not yet reached most colleges, many are already wondering whether it will be possible to secure additional funding in the near future. More than 41 education groups recently wrote a letter to congressional leaders stating that they need an additional $47 billion to “at least partially restore institutions.” Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, who has requested more funding, agreed. “While I am pleased that the first $6 billion in emergency funding is now being made available, we must recognize that is just one step in a long and challenging effort to maintain access to education for students across the country,” he said in a statement. In the meantime, colleges and university communities are pushing forward in their efforts to help low-income students with family emergencies, unexpected disruptions, and basic needs.

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