A Texas Civil Rights Review Interim Report
[With some inserts added in brackets, Apr. 23]
Financial aid experts thought they knew what they would do with federal money that Congress allocated under the CARES Act for emergency aid to college students. Like everyone else, they have been reading that COVID-19 relief funding from the Department of Education (ED) is only a day away.
Two weeks after the CARES Act passed, the emergency funds were going to be “immediately” released, a promise that reporters mistakenly treated as accomplished fact on Apr. 9. Then, the funds were going to be released “as early as” Apr. 15. And lately, on Apr. 21, ED posted 13 FAQs telling how–and how not–to use those funds, that is, when they are made available, which, seriously–and we mean it this time–could be soon.
If you’re not confused by any of the above, it’s because you haven’t been trying to figure it out.
Meanwhile, headlines have been stuffed with announcements about $1,200 CARES Act checks hitting taxpayer accounts as early as Apr. 13. And we are amply informed that $350 billion in CARES Act small business relief was spent by Apr. 16, prompting the Senate to vote on Apr. 21 for another $310 billion.
Now, approaching the one-month anniversary of the Mar. 27 CARES Act, we are still looking for a single headline that says, “College Student Receives Federal Emergency Relief for COVID-19 Hardship.”
In the 13 FAQs released Tuesday, ED holds the line on some of its earlier guidance, already widely anticipated, that the first half of the $12 billion relief fund must go to students, not to student accounts, even if students need money to pay accounts.
However, in a slight twist that caught experts by surprise, if the campus has already given money to students for COVID-19 relief in the form of cash payments [and if the money was given after passage of the CARES Act on Mar. 27], the campus may use the federal money to replenish that account, instead of giving the federal money to students.
Many campuses have already raised local emergency funds and paid them out for COVID-19 emergency relief. Often, these campus funds have run out before all requests were filled.
Experts were also hoping that Congress intended to cast a wider net with the student half of COVID-19 emergency relief so that it would not require cumbersome analysis of overall financial need or citizenship status. They were hoping to disburse the funds with short-form requests that would not be closely tied to Title IV federal financial aid, which is regulated under the cumbersome FAFSA system.
But in a catch that caught many by surprise, the recent FAQs say that students eligible for this round of emergency relief must be eligible for Title IV, or “could be” eligible. What this means to financial aid professionals is that if a student is not already on the Title IV rolls, a time-consuming FAFSA analysis will have to be applied.
In a closely related surprise, the Title IV “clarification” has the effect of excluding foreign students.
Likewise, on the question of undocumented students, most will be unable to access the funds because of Title IV resstrictions. The answer to FAQ 9 states that, “Students who have not filed a FAFSA but who are eligible to file a FAFSA also may receive emergency financial aid grants.” A fact sheet at studentaid.gov state in turn that, “Most undocumented students aren’t eligible for an SSN; thus, they cannot complete the FAFSA form. However, DACA students with SSNs can complete the FAFSA form” (even though they are not eligible for federal financial aid.)
Experts were also surprised that the 13 FAQs excluded any students from COVID-19 relief funding if they were taking courses solely online at an institution where they could have been taking courses off line. The money was intended by Congress to address disruptions caused by moving online from campus, says the FAQ.
While financial aid experts knew that half of the $12 billion in COVID-19 funds for higher ed were earmarked for direct student relief, there was widespread perception that the other half of the funds might be applied to other expenses that supported students, such as unpaid bills.
Some campuses quickly refunded dorm fees or other costs, partly under the impression that a federal relief package would help make up the loss to Spring semester budgets.
The assumption that the second half of funding would be available for campus relief, not direct student payment, is what fueled harsh criticism of funds that would be directed through some of the well-endowed campuses, such as Harvard, Texas A&M, or the University of Texas. Harvard promised that it would apply all of the relief money to students.
Public criticism of emergency funds going to students at well-endowed universities were joined vith vigor by President Donald Trump, Treasury Secretary Mcnuchin, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, promting both Harvard and Stanford Universities to opt out of the program on behalf of their COVID-19 affected students.
In a promise typical of ED over the past weeks, FAQ number one promises another release of FAQs that will cover the second half of the money, “shortly after making those funds available to institutions.” The promise ensures that campuses will have to hold the second round of money at lest until the new FAQs are released.
Perhaps the release of FAQs on Apr. 21 pertaining to the first half of funding therefore means that indeed the funds have been released?