By Jillian Berman
Through the coronavirus relief packages, Congress has sent more money to colleges and universities to distribute directly to their students, but not all students have had access to those funds.
Now, that’s about to change.
International students and undocumented students will be eligible to receive emergency-aid funds sent to schools through the American Rescue Plan, the coronavirus relief bill congress passed in March. The change, which the Department of Education announced Tuesday, marks a reversal from the approach to emergency aid the agency took during the Trump administration .
Under former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the agency had said only students who were eligible for federal financial aid — U.S. citizens and certain non-citizens such as green card holders — could have access to money. That position, which the agency argued was consistent with the intent of the CARES Act, was controversial; Democratic lawmakers argued undocumented students should be eligible.
In explaining the Biden-era Department’s decision, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the guidance announced Tuesday simplifies the definition of who is eligible for the relief funds.
“All students can qualify for this,” Cardona told reporters on a conference call. “There are students in need and the pandemic didn’t discriminate.”
Funding comes as college and college students cope with pandemic’s impact
The change in eligibility was one part of a package of guidance the Department released Tuesday for colleges and universities as they look to spend the $36 billion in coronavirus relief allocated to them by Congress in March.
The funds come as colleges and college students are still coping with the financial and health impacts of the pandemic, and as they face another academic year that will likely feature testing, sanitizing and other hallmarks of attending school in a pandemic.
Schools can use the funds both to help students recover from the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and to help prepare for a safe school year, the agency said in the guidance released Tuesday.
“The goal here is not only reopening schools, but recovering in a way that’s stronger than we ever were before,” Cardona said on the call.
Colleges used funds on financial aid, tech support and more
As part of the announcement, the agency highlighted ways that COVID relief funds have impacted students and colleges. Laura Herrara, a third year student at the University of Central Florida, told reporters that emergency federal aid she received through her school helped her get back on track financially and academically after suffering from COVID-19.
The illness not only caused her to miss school, but made her absent from a month’s-worth of work and paychecks she was counting on to afford college, Herrara said. The emergency relief lawmakers sent to colleges are important to students like Herrara, she said because the money allows her and others to “stay in school with the peace of mind that we can afford to keep going,” she said.
Bill Pink, the president of Grand Rapids Community College, said his school used funds previously provided by Congress to purchase laptops, hot spots and push the school’s Wi-Fi signal out to students at public library parking lots in rural areas. Pink’s college also distributed more than $3.4 million in CARES Act funding directly to roughly half of their student body to use on things like child care, housing and food.
Public and nonprofit colleges are required to use roughly half of the money allocated to in the American Rescue Plan to provide direct, emergency relief to students (for-profit schools can only use the funds on financial aid for students).
The funding is also supposed to be directed to students with the most financial need. The guidance released Tuesday indicates that colleges can consider things like whether a student is eligible for a Pell grant, the funding the government provides to low-income students to attend college, loss of employment and food or housing insecurity, among other factors, when distributing the funding.
Schools can use the money to wipe away student debt owed to them and promote vaccination
The agency also provided examples of ways colleges could use the funds to retain and reengage students. That includes wiping away debt owed to the school that students accrued during the pandemic.
Students and former students owe roughly $15 billion in debt to their schools, bills that can prevent them from continuing their education at their current school or transferring elsewhere. Schools will often hold transcripts as collateral for this debt, making it challenging for students to get a fresh start.
The challenges of balancing health concerns, jobs and family responsibilities caused a drop in enrollment during the pandemic that was particularly acute at community colleges. “We know that many of these students this school year were telling us, we’re sitting it out,” Pink told reporters on the call. He said the funding can help schools “take some other barriers off the table,” for students who want to return.
“It will help us in helping those students reengage,” he said.
In addition to helping students stay in and return to school, the guidance suggests ways for colleges to use the funds to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID. Those include setting up infrastructure for COVID testing and vaccinating students. Colleges can also use the money to reduce barriers to vaccination including by providing paid time off to staff to get the vaccine.
Many colleges across the country have said they will require COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of enrollment, though the legal landscape around the issue remains unsettled. Requiring faculty and staff be vaccinated is legally trickier, experts say.