Federal officials extend pandemic aid to undocumented, international students

The U.S. Department of Education this week prepared to distribute more than $36 billion in emergency aid to colleges, announcing that it has reversed a Trump-era decision that barred undocumented and international students from accessing the funds.

Authorized by the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package Congress passed in March, this third round of aid includes $10 billion for community colleges, $2.6 billion for historically Black institutions, $190 million for tribal colleges and universities, and $6 billion for other minority-serving institutions. It builds on the $14 billion higher education received in the CARES Act and the $22.7 billion provided in December 2020.

Reversing controversial restrictions

Several months after Congress authorized the first round of higher education emergency relief funding in spring 2020, then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos enacted an interim regulation limiting the grants to students who receive federal financial aid. The decision blocked undocumented students, international students, students with minor drug convictions, and students who had defaulted on student loans from accessing the funds.

The Trump administration later opened eligibility to students with drug convictions and defaulted loans, but it continued to exclude international and undocumented students, sparking an outcry from many across higher education. POLITICO notes that, while federal judges in several jurisdictions struck down the DeVos restrictions, their rulings applied only to students at institutions in three states.

The Washington Post reports that the DeVos regulation not only excluded students from receiving aid, it also slowed and complicated colleges’ efforts to put the funds in students’ hands. Hundreds of institutions submitted comments to the education department urging DeVos to drop the restrictions.

Expanding access to all students

In announcing this week’s final rule broadening eligibility to all students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities during the COVID-19 national emergency, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the change “simplif[ies] the definition of a student,” allows institutions to “get the money in the hands of students sooner,” and better reflects Congress’s intent.

Many Congressional Democrats and higher education stakeholders applauded the change, which applies to all three rounds of pandemic relief funding. “Denying emergency grants to DACA and undocumented students wasn’t just legally questionable, it was a moral failing, and I’m relieved to see this finally corrected,” Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, told the Post.

Under education department guidelines, individual nonprofit colleges and universities must dedicate at least half of their pandemic relief allocation to emergency grants for students with the greatest need. For-profit colleges, which will receive around $400 million in aid, must direct all of their funds to student grants.

Higher Ed Dive notes that colleges can use a variety of criteria to determine student need; they can factor in unexpected expenses, employment loss, income reduction, basic needs insecurity, and other considerations.

Clarifying how colleges can spend relief funds

Education officials this week also outlined an expansive array of ways that colleges and universities can use their COVID relief funds, including:

  • Cancelling student debt accrued during the pandemic and owed directly to the college
  • Strengthening academic support services and other student retention programs
  • Upgrading and purchasing technology such as laptops used for remote learning
  • Expanding mental health programs
  • Recouping lost revenue
  • Offering faculty training
  • Purchasing cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment
  • Boosting vaccination by setting up vaccination sites, increasing awareness, and providing paid time off for staff to go get their shots

Funds, however, may not be used for recruitment, marketing, endowment growth, construction, or administrator compensation. The latest federal guidelines also require nonprofit colleges and universities to spend part of their federal relief funding on evidence-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and on outreach to ensure that students who apply for financial aid understand that their award can be adjusted to reflect changes in family income or circumstances.

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