COVID-19 Reference Page: Student Portion of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund

This information is under review due to the updated statement released late Thursday, May 21.

Department of Education (ED) guidance on the use of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) funds is changing on an almost daily basis. Check back often as NASFAA will continue to update this reference page as any new guidance becomes available. Updates will be marked below as *NEW*. More information and resources on how the spread of the novel coronavirus is impacting student financial aid can be found on NASFAA's COVID-19 Web Center.


The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act includes a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) that provides more than $14 billion in emergency funding to higher education. Of those funds, more than $6 billion must go directly to students in the form of emergency financial aid grants (HEERF-student share) for expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to the COVID-19 crisis. On April 9, 2020, the ED published a list of individual institutional allocations, a certification form that must be signed and returned in order to access the funds, and a letter from Secretary Betsy DeVos outlining ED's implementation of the CARES Act program. On April 21, 2020, ED released additional clarification on student eligibility and allowable uses of HEERF-student share funds. 

Using ED's guidance, along with the CARES Act legislative language, NASFAA developed the following resource to assist institutions in determining eligibility and allowable uses for the HEERF-student share. NASFAA's analysis of the institutional portion of the HEERF funds can be found here.

Fast Facts

  • Not Title IV Aid, but Title IV Eligibility Required: While HEERF-student share dollars are not Title IV aid, ED's April 21 guidance states that students must meet Title IV eligibility requirements in order to receive HEERF emergency grants. 
  • Expense v. Need: HEERF-student share dollars are to aid students for expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to the coronavirus; this is different than a change in a student's financial need due to COVID-19, which could be a result of a loss of income rather than new expenses.
  • Direct to Students: Institutions must pay HEERF-student share emergency grants directly to students and may not apply the grants toward outstanding institutional charges.

Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

Q: Which students are eligible to receive HEERF-student emergency funds?

A: Students must meet Title IV eligibility requirements in order to receive HEERF emergency funds. After confirming the Title IV eligibility requirements, the institution retains discretion over which students will receive HEERF-student share funds. According to the certification agreement, institutions are required to comply with "all applicable laws including non-discrimation laws" when determining who will receive the emergency grants. Beyond that stipulation, there are no further prohibitions of specific students in the certification agreement. Therefore, any Title IV-eligible student may receive HEERF-student share funds, unless prohibited by another law. 

There have been many questions about awarding HEERF-student share funds to international students, online students, and undocumented students. 

International and Undocumented Students: ED's April 21 guidance states that students must meet Title IV eligibility requirements in order to receive HEERF-student share funds. Therefore, international and undocumented students are not eligible to receive emergency grants. 

Online Students: Students who were enrolled exclusively in online programs on March 13 (the date of President Trump's national emergency proclamation) are not eligible for HEERF-student share funds, per ED's April 21 guidance.  

Q: Do we have to have a student's Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on file in order to disburse HEERF-student funds to students?

A: While ED's guidance does not require a FAFSA, having one on file would be the only practicable way for an institution to determine that a student is eligible to participate in the Title IV programs and meet all of applicable student eligibility requirements. Without having a FAFSA on file, schools would need to verify that a student meets the Title IV eligibility criteria. In its HEERF FAQ document, ED states the following: "The criteria to participate in programs under Section 484 of the [Higher Education Act (HEA)] include but are not limited to the following: U.S. citizenship or eligible noncitizen; a valid Social Security number; registration with Selective Service (if the student is male); and a high school diploma, GED, or completion of high school in an approved homeschool setting." Beyond this guidance, a school will need to make its own decisions on how to document if a student is or could be Title IV-eligible when awarding HEERF grants to students. 

Q: What eligibility criteria are in section 484 of the Higher Education Act (HEA)?

A: Section 484 of the HEA states that Title IV eligible students must:

    • Be enrolled or accepted for enrollment in a degree or certificate program. 
    • Not be enrolled in elementary or secondary school.
    • For currently enrolled students, be making satisfactory academic progress.
    • Not owe an overpayment on Title IV grants or loans.
    • Not be in default on a Title IV loan.
    • File "as part of the original financial aid application process" a certification that includes
      • A statement of educational purpose.
      • Student's SSN.
    • Be a U.S. citizen or national, permanent resident, or other eligible noncitizen.
    • Have returned fraudulently obtained Title IV funds if convicted of or pled guilty or no contest to charges. 
    • Not have fraudulently received Title IV loans in excess of annual or aggregate limits.
    • Have repaid Title IV loan amounts in excess of annual or aggregate limits if obtained inadvertently.
    • Have Selective Service registration verified.
    • Have Social Security Number verified.
    • Not have a federal or state conviction for drug possession or sale, with certain time limitations.

Q: Is verification a student eligibility requirement under section 484 of the HEA?

A: The verification requirements are not included in HEA Section 484, however, the V4 and V5 selection groups include re-submission of the statement of educational purpose, which is in Section 484. 

Q: Given all the uncertainty over the student eligibility requirements, how should we proceed?

A: Lacking further guidance, the most conservative approach for institutions seeking to distribute HEERF dollars within the near future would be to limit eligibility to students who have already met all Title IV eligibility requirements by completing a FAFSA and resolving all C codes and completing verification, if selected by ED.

Q: Can a school reimburse itself for any funds it has spent on students related to COVID-19, including refunds for room and board?

A: Institutions may not use the student portion of the HEERF funds to reimburse themselves for tuition or room and board refunds. Schools may use the institutional portion of the HEERF funds to reimburse themselves for refunds made to students on or after March 13, 2020, issued for room and board, tuition, and other fees as a result of significant changes to the delivery of instruction, due to the novel coronavirus. 

Q: Can schools apply student emergency grants to a student's account in order to pay off outstanding balances?

A: ED has made clear that the emergency cash grants to students cannot be applied toward outstanding balances, and must be disbursed directly to students, using means such as check, electronic funds transfer, payment app, or pre-loaded debit card. 

Q: Can institutions use HEERF-student funds to reimburse themselves for emergency cash grants that a school has already disbursed to students?

A: Institutions may use HEERF-student funds to reimburse themselves if they provided an emergency grant to a student that meets the same eligibility criteria of HEERF grant funds on or after March 27 — the day the CARES Act became law. In such instances, ED would consider the institution to have made an advance payment of HEERF dollars to students in anticipation of receipt of the federal deposit.

Q: Can schools use HEERF-student funds to cover the cost of resources the school provided directly to students, such as giving a student a computer or internet hotspot or filling an on-campus food pantry?

A: No, the HEERF funds must be distributed to students in the form of cash grants. The funds must go from the school to the student, and the student can then use their grant to cover coronavirus-related expenses.

Q: By what date must HEERF-student funds be distributed? Can an institution save funds for award year 2020-21?

A: ED's certification agreement states that schools must "promptly and to the greatest extent practicable" distribute HEERF emergency financial aid grants to students by one year from the date they submit the signed certification form. The CARES Act stipulates that the funds are available through September 30, 2021. NASFAA is seeking clarification from ED on the difference between the date in the statute and the requirement that schools spend the funds within one year of signing the agreement. 

Q: How should an institution determine which students receive emergency grants and the amount of each grant? 

A: Institutions must identify students who have incurred expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to the novel coronavirus. This can be achieved either through an application form, or by identifying groups of students who have incurred the same expense due to the campus disruption, such as students enrolled in an art class who must now purchase their own supplies. ED encourages institutions to prioritize awarding of emergency grants to students with the greatest need, and suggests using the maximum annual Pell Grant amount as the maximum emergency grant, but these are not requirements; institutions have discretion in this area. 

*NEW* Q: What are the reporting requirements for the HEERF-student funds?

A: Students who receive funding from their institutions are not required to record or track how it is spent. Schools, however, will be required to report:

    • An acknowledgement that the institution signed and returned the certification and agreement form and that the institution has used, or intends to use the funds to provide the mandated amount of at least 50% of the emergency financial aid grants to students.
    • The total amount of funds that the institution will receive, or has received under the HEERF student portion.
    • Of those funds, the total amount that has been distributed to students as of the date of reporting (i.e. the first 30-day deadline, and then every 45 days thereafter).
    • The estimated total number of students at the institution eligible to participate in programs under Section 484 in Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 and therefore eligible to receive an emergency financial aid grant.
    • The total number of students who have received an emergency financial aid grant.
    • How the institution determined which students did, or will receive emergency financial aid grants and how much funding they did, or will receive.
    • Any instructions, directions, or guidance provided by the institution to students concerning the emergency financial aid grants.

The first report must be submitted within 30 days of when the institution receives their allocation, and every 45 days thereafter.

While ED develops a process for institutions to directly provide the required reporting data, it has in the meantime called for institutions to make easily accessible to the public via the institution's website.

*NASFAA is asking ED whether this means: 1) within 30 days of receiving the first drawdown of funds from the student grant allocation; or 2) within 30 days of when the school received the Grant Award Notification informing them that the funds were available for drawdown.

Q: Will HEERF emergency grants be counted as income for the calculation of Expected Family Contribution (EFC) or estimated financial assistance (EFA)?

A: No. ED's April 3 Electronic Announcement clarifies that any aid received by victims of an emergency by either a federal or state entity for purposes of providing financial relief will not be counted as income for the calculation of EFC, or as EFA.

Q: The certification agreement says that schools, as part of the reporting requirement, have to document and report that they've continued to pay all employees/contractors to "the greatest extent practicable, explaining in detail all specific actions and decisions related thereto." Does this mean an institution will be at risk of losing funds if employees are furloughed or laid off? Does "all employees" include Federal Work-Study (FWS) and non-FWS student employees?

A: NASFAA's interpretation is that the language "to the greatest extent practicable" is an acknowledgement by ED that it is unreasonable to expect an institution to continue to pay all employees/contractors during a national crisis. If an institution is making a good faith effort to pay employees to the extent possible, and can document accordingly, the institution should not be concerned about this provision.

Outstanding Questions

At the moment, the answers to the following questions remain unknown. NASFAA hopes to be able to address these questions in the near future and will update this reference page on a rolling basis as ED provides additional guidance. 

  • Must verification be completed before awarding HEERF-student funds to students who complete the FAFSA?
  • For efficiency's sake, may HEERF-student funds pass through an institution's student information system/student accounts system as long as the funds are set up as to not pay the student's account balance?
  • Are institutions required to determine all student eligibility requirements in HEA Section 484, or just the citizenship requirement? 
  • How can institutions confirm that their students meet the eligibility requirements in HEA section 484 without collecting the FAFSA?
  • Within what timeframe must HEERF funds be spent? Currently there is conflicting information between the CARES Act and ED's guidance.
  • What does reporting look like? Will schools use an existing system or need to upload documentation elsewhere?

NASFAA's COVID-19 Web Center

Publication Date: 5/7/2020

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