Ed Dept’s ‘evolving communications’ delayed aid to college students, watchdog finds

Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education’s handling of federal coronavirus aid delayed college students from getting the funds, according to a new assessment from a government watchdog group.

  • The department initially gave colleges wide latitude for disbursing billions in emergency grants under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. But the agency’s “evolving communications” on which students were eligible for the aid hamstrung institutions’ efforts to disperse it, the Government Accountability Office found.

  • The department’s new rule that bars certain students from accessing aid took effect this month, but twin court rulings have partially blocked it in two states.

Dive Insight:

Congress earmarked more than $6 billion in CARES Act money to college students disadvantaged by the coronavirus. In early April, the Education Department began distributing the funding to colleges to pass on to students in the form of emergency grants. 

But later that month, the department issued guidance that limited the grants to students who were eligible for federal financial aid, which excludes unauthorized immigrant and international students, setting off a legal drama. The department recently cemented that restriction with a new regulation that carries the force of law.

Five of seven higher ed associations the GAO contacted reported that the Education Department’s shifting communications created difficulties for colleges and delayed distribution of the grants.

Some colleges had already developed plans for allocating CARES Act funds by the time the department first announced eligibility restrictions, according to one association. 

The report notes colleges are using multiple methods to determine which students should get the grants, including application processes or formulas that award them based on students’ level of financial need.

Colleges are generally relying on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine eligibility for grants, the report notes. Several groups said institutions were uncertain about how they could verify grant eligibility without a FAFSA, which could exclude some students who qualify for grants but never filled one out. 

“For example, it may limit emergency aid to veterans, who are less likely to have applied for federal student aid, according to one veterans’ education organization,” the GAO wrote.

Colleges and higher education groups have contended that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has barred aid to vulnerable students on college campuses. 

Campus leaders were particularly frustrated the department took a month to clarify the restriction, as DeVos had initially urged them to distribute the grants as quickly as possible. Their confusion compounded in late May when the department said on its website that the guidance wasn’t legally enforceable. 

Unauthorized and other immigrant students are still blocked from the grants because of the rule the department put forth earlier this month. Congress intended the grants only go to Americans, department officials argued in the regulation, citing portions of the U.S. Code that prevent certain noncitizens from receiving public benefits.

Democratic lawmakers have pushed back on the department’s assertions. And two federal judges stopped the rule from taking effect completely for institutions in Washington state and California’s community colleges. 

In comments to a draft version of the government watchdog’s report, the Ed Department said the GAO’s characterizations were “inaccurate, flawed, incomplete, and unfair.” But the GAO stood by its assessment, noting that the department didn’t specify which statements in the report were incorrect.

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