On Friday, Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced the Supporting Students in Response to Coronavirus Act (S. 3489), a bill that would provide more than $3 billion in funding for a variety of supports for preschool, K-12, and higher education, including a new student emergency grant fund. The bill also provides additional flexibility for certain Title IV statutory requirements for students and institutions impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. The House, led by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), introduced a nearly identical companion bill (H.R. 6275) on Friday as well.
Increased Flexibility for Institutions
The bill grants the Department of Education (ED) authority to exclude from Subsidized Usage Limits any academic period during which a student was unable to remain enrolled because of a qualifying emergency. It also permits ED authority to waive — for institutions who request such a waiver — the return of Title IV funds (R2T4) requirement for schools or students to return unearned grant or loan assistance for students who withdrew because of a qualifying emergency. In such instances, ED would be required to cancel the portion of the borrower’s Direct Loan(s) for the payment period that the waiver was granted. Existing waivers in statute that exempt disaster-affected students from the requirement to return Pell Grant or other grant funds after a withdrawal related to the disaster have been expanded to include the definition of “qualifying emergency” for the purposes of the bill, which includes state of emergency declarations by governors; a presidential declaration of a major disaster, emergency, or national emergency; or a public health emergency declared by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Institutions would be given broader authority to offer students, as a result of a qualifying emergency, approved Leaves of Absence (LOA). The bill waives the requirement for the student to return at the same point in the academic program they began the LOA. This will assist term-based institutions, which have the most difficulty complying with this requirement and, as such, are rarely able to offer approved LOAs.
Institutions would also be provided flexibility with respect to Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) for students who withdrew as a result of a qualifying emergency. Institutions could exclude attempted, but unearned, credits from the quantitative SAP calculation for those students without requiring the student to appeal.
Finally, the bill expands the eligible program definition, which currently excludes foreign institutions from providing distance education to U.S. students not enrolled in a study abroad program. The bill adds an exemption to this prohibition that would allow foreign institutions to offer distance education in the case of a public health emergency, major disaster or emergency, or national emergency declaration by the foreign government where the foreign institution is located. Note that current law allows a student enrolled at a U.S. institution participating in a study abroad program to take courses via distance education from a foreign institution.
New Federal Emergency Grant Program
An infusion of $1.2 billion ($600,000 for fiscal year 2020 and 2021) is included in the bill for emergency financial aid for higher education institutions to award to students up to $1,500 each award year to help them meet unexpected expenses related to their basic needs during a qualifying emergency.
Student grants received from these emergency funds would not be treated as Estimated Financial Aid.
ED would be required to make applications available within 30 days of the bill’s passage into law and would also be required to approve or deny applications within 30 days of receipt.
Institutions could receive up to $750,000, but would specify their requested amount of funding under this competitive grant program. Institutions would be able to apply for such funding twice for each award year.
The application would also require institutions to describe:
The criteria they would use in awarding grants to students
The process by which students would apply
How they will prioritize applications
Their assurance that they will make information on means-tested benefits available to students
Institutions would be permitted to use up to 3% of emergency grant funds for administration of the program.
Priority for emergency grant funds would go to institutions most heavily affected by a qualifying emergency and to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs).
Institutions receiving grant funds would be required to report annually on:
The number of applicants and number of students awarded such funds
Average award amounts
Processing time for students to receive emergency grant decisions
Disaggregated data on grant recipients by race or ethnicity, sex, classification as an individual with a disability, and Pell Grant recipient status
The bill also provides for another $1.2 billion in grants to states to distribute to K-12 districts and institutions of higher education impacted by COVID-19 for planning, training, sanitizing, and providing meals to students, among other things. It also provides $600 million for early childhood care and education programs to provide for continued operation of such facilities.
Pell LEU Exclusion
The House version of the bill also allows the Secretary to exclude from a student's Pell Grant Lifetime Eligibility Used (LEU) any semester (or equivalent) that that the student does not complete due to a qualifying emergency, in this case, COVID-19. The Senate version does not include this provision.
NASFAA will follow the bill as it moves forward in the legislative process.
For more information and resources on how the spread of the novel coronavirus is impacting student financial aid, please refer to NASFAA's COVID-19 Web Center.
Publication Date: 3/13/2020