DeVos issues formal rule barring DACA recipients from college coronavirus relief funds

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos doubled down on a policy barring emergency grant funds to be awarded to non-citizens of the U.S. including those under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program.

An interim formal rule was issued by the Education Department on Thursday that addressed coronavirus relief funds that were granted to colleges to help with students who were affected by closures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

(Image: DOE YouTube screenshot)

“It’s clear the CARES Act was written to help Americans recover from the coronavirus pandemic,” DeVos said in a statement to The New York Times. “U.S. taxpayers have long supported U.S. students pursuing higher education, and this rule simply ensures the continuity of that well-established policy.”

More than $6 billion in emergency relief issued to colleges is to be directed to students, including U.S. citizens or legal residents, who are already eligible for federal financial aid. But students under DACA, the Obama-era program protecting thousands of immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children, will not be eligible to receive any of the funding, according to the rule.

The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, directed DeVos to distribute stimulus funding to colleges in the same way other financial aid is allocated. But confusion over which students are actually eligible led to a series of statements by the Department of Education that only seemed to muddy the interpretation and application of the funding.

In a letter to higher education institutions issued in April, DeVos said the law “provides institutions with significant discretion on how to award this emergency assistance to students,” and “the only statutory requirement is that the funds be used to cover expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus.”

“This means that each institution may develop its own system and process for determining how to allocate these funds, which may include distributing the funds to all students or only to students who demonstrate significant need,” she wrote.

However, a document on the Education Department’s website noted that only those eligible for regular student aid could receive the emergency funds. Lawsuits challenging the DOE soon emerged and the department then announced that the guidance was not legally binding.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, said the guidance caused “head-snapping uncertainty on college campuses.”

“We fear that campuses will be in the position to only give money to people already getting financial aid, using a complicated, time-consuming process that is completely inconsistent with emergency grants,” he said, according to the New York Times.

The California community college system filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education last month, claiming its guidance “likely excludes more than half of all students in the California community college system, including many identified as economically disadvantaged.”

“DoE’s unexplained inconsistent interpretations, disregard of congressional intent,” the lawsuit stated, accusing DeVos of exceeding her authority in restricting colleges from distributing the emergency funds to whomever they wanted.

The top Democrat on the Senate’s education committee slammed DeVos for the department’s latest rule.

“As students across the country are struggling to make ends meet in the face of unprecedented financial challenges, Secretary DeVos’ efforts to deny some much-needed aid is cruel,” Senator Patty Murray said in a statement. “These extreme eligibility requirements will not only harm students, but they are also contrary to Congressional intent. I’ll keep fighting to ensure that students get the relief they need — and that Secretary DeVos implements the law as Congress intended.”

But the department pointed to a concern for potential abuse as the reasoning behind applying an established standard.

“The potential for waste, fraud and abuse is significant when institutions of higher education are given the opportunity to quickly make cash awards to students,” the rule stated.

“If a broad definition of ‘student’ were employed for purposes of emergency financial aid grants to students, unscrupulous institutions could create cheap classes and programming that provides little or no educational value and then use the HEERF grant funding to incentivize individuals not qualified under Title IV to enroll as paying students in those classes and programs, thereby qualifying for a grant,” the department added in the rule.

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Frieda Powers

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