Education Department’s Interim Final Rule on CARES Act Excludes Nearly 8 Million Students
June 12, 2020

The Department of Education (ED) released an interim final rule late Thursday explicitly stating that only students who are eligible for Title IV federal financial aid can receive emergency grants provided in the CARES Act, the COVID-19 stimulus bill signed into law in March.

This restriction leaves out a significant number of students who may require assistance, including undocumented and international students.

The rule is the latest development after weeks of confusing back and forth over the issue (see this timeline prepared by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators for details). ACE Senior Vice President Terry Hartle said in an interview yesterday that the ambiguity has caused “head-snapping uncertainty on college campuses,” and has necessitated, ”a complicated, time-consuming process that is completely inconsistent with emergency grants.”

At the center of the debate is how to interpret Congress’s intentions on what “student” means, given that the CARES Act did not outline clear criteria. ACE and other higher education associations believe Congress did not intend the law to bar any students in need from receiving help.

In guidance issued in late April, ED attempted to clear up the issue of student eligibility. Although it subsequently said that the guidance document was preliminary and wouldn't be enforced, the new interim final rule tracks that guidance. Thus the department now has the ability to enforce its interpretation of the CARES Act.

It's no surprise that the department’s rule reflected its previous views, ACE Assistant Vice President Dan Madzelan told Inside Higher Ed.

“But that does not mean we are not very disappointed that basically the department is ignoring roughly eight million students and their needs,” he said. “Congress said, ‘We trust your colleges and universities.’ The department is saying, ‘We don’t trust you.’”

The rule might not be the last word on the issue. California Community Colleges (CCC) filed suit last month against Secretary Betsy DeVos for what they said is her “arbitrary exclusion of hundreds of thousands of California community college students from access to CARES Act emergency student aid.” A virtual hearing was held in the case this week, and U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers is reportedly poised to stop the department's efforts to exclude undocumented students and others who don’t qualify for federal financial aid.

The rule will take effect when it is published in the Federal Register, which likely will happen next week. The new eligibility criteria apply to grants handed out after the rule is published.

​COVID-19 Policy Developments

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