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 in red. 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.
On May 21, ED announced that they will not be enforcing previous guidance that required students to be Title IV eligible to receive HEERF Grants, because the guidance lacks “the force and effect of law.”
Then, on June 17, ED issued a preview of its interim final rule regarding the distribution of coronavirus emergency relief grants to students, doubling down on its position that only Title IV-eligible students can receive the funding.
ED clarified in the rule that enforcement of the Title IV eligibility interpretation will not be retroactive before the date of publication in the Federal Register, but reminded institutions of its prior guidance regarding funds issued to individuals living in the country illegally, those enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and international students.
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.
Q: Which students are eligible to receive HEERF-student emergency funds?
A: The April 21 guidance, as well as the June 17 final rule, states that 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-discrimination 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, which would include DACA students, undocumented students and international students.
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.
Institutions that choose to take advantage of ED's non-enforcement policy applicable for disbursements prior to June 17 and not limit eligibility only to students who meet the Section 484 student eligibility requirements must still consider, with the assistance of legal counsel, the applicability of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, and whether and how they will document student citizenship status.
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:
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.
Institutions that choose to take advantage of ED's non-enforcement policy applicable for disbursements prior to June 17 and not limit eligibility only to students who meet the Section 484 student eligibility requirements must still consider, with the assistance of legal counsel, the applicability of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.
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. Additionally, HEERF-student funds may 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.
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: All institutions were given 1 calendar year (365 days) from the date of award in their HEERF Grant Award Notification (GAN) to complete the performance of their HEERF grant. For example, if a grantee received a GAN on April 7, 2020, the one calendar year period of performance for their HEERF grant would be through April 6, 2021.
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.
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:
The first report was generally due 30 days after the Department originally obligated funds to the institution for the Section 18004(a)(1) Student Portion.
Subsequent reports are due quarterly and must be posted no later than 10 days after the calendar quarter (October 10, January 10, April 10, July 10).
Institutions should make this information easily accessible to the public via the institution's website.
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.
Q: Are institutions required to determine all student eligibility requirements in HEA Section 484, or just the citizenship requirement?
A: HEERF funds are not Title IV federal student aid funds, but only students who are or could be eligible to participate the Title IV programs under Section 484 in Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA) [20 USC 1091(a)] may receive these funds.
Q: How can institutions confirm that their students meet the eligibility requirements in HEA section 484 without collecting the FAFSA?
A: While the Interim Final Rule and ED's guidance do not require a FAFSA to demonstrate Title IV eligibility, having a FAFSA on file would be the most practicable way for an institution to determine that a student is eligible to participate in the Title IV federal student aid programs and meets all general student eligibility criteria in Section 484 of the HEA. The Interim Final Rule is unclear on whether a prior-year FAFSA is acceptable; therefore, accepting one is at the school's discretion. Just remember that a prior year's FAFSA will not have updated default and overpayment information, Statement of Educational Purpose, etc.
Without having a FAFSA on file, the school would need to confirm by some other method that a student meets all of the Title IV eligibility criteria. Under the Interim Final Rule, a student who chooses not to fill out a FAFSA but who otherwise meets the Title IV eligibility criteria, may self-certify his, her, or their eligibility by completing an application designed by the institution in which the student attests under the penalty of perjury to meeting the requirements of Section 484 of the HEA. It is entirely up to the school to decide whether it implements such a self-certification and whether it wants to assume any potential liability for conflicting information that might arise if a FAFSA is later submitted.
Q: Must verification be completed before awarding HEERF-student funds to students who complete the FAFSA?
A: We cannot answer whether verification would be required, but it is our understanding that verification would not be required because:
1) HEERF grants are not need-based funds under the CARES Act; and 2) verification is not a general student eligibility requirement under Section 484 of the HEA.
However, the V4 and V5 Verification Tracking Groups include re-submission of the Statement of Educational Purpose, which is in Section 484.
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.
Publication Date: 3/19/2021