Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education is appealing a ruling from a California judge that allows the state’s community colleges to distribute federal coronavirus aid to unauthorized and international students. 

  • In an interim rule in June, the department blocked students who are ineligible for federal financial aid from receiving money under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The federal judge stopped those restrictions from taking effect among California’s two-year schools. 

  • The appeal is the latest development in the ongoing saga over the distribution of CARES Act funding, which many in the higher education sector say the department bungled. 

Dive Insight:

The department infuriated many campus officials and higher ed groups when it published guidance in April putting limits on the $6 billion in CARES funding earmarked for emergency student grants. 

The agency said only students who were eligible for federal financial aid could get the grants, which excluded some noncitizens. Administrators who were critical of the decision have said the department was disadvantaging some of the most vulnerable students on college campuses.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos put no conditions on the funding when she began releasing it in early April, only urging colleges to distribute it to students quickly. 

Department officials argued that because the CARES Act referenced Title IV aid and the systems by which it is distributed, Congress intended for the relief money to go only to students who qualify for federal aid. Democratic lawmakers have pushed back on that assertion, and some have publicly urged the administration to reverse the policies. 

The department in early June issued the emergency regulation that gave the restriction the force of law. 

Two federal court rulings in June have curtailed the rule, however. One applied to colleges in Washington state, though they still could not distribute the grants to international and unauthorized students. The other lifted the restrictions for the California Community Colleges, the largest postsecondary system in the U.S.

The system will continue giving out the grants in the meantime, spokesperson Paul Feist wrote in an email.

“We remain confident in the strength of the case brought by the California attorney general on behalf of our students,” Feist wrote. 

A spokesperson for the department indicated shortly after the California court order came down that it would appeal the decision, though the agency didn’t do so for weeks. Lawyers for the department late last week formally appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

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