California Community Colleges Sue ED Over Emergency Aid Eligibility Requirements

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The California Community Colleges system has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education (ED) in response to its recent guidance on distributing emergency grant funds through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, alleging ED’s reasoning for limiting funds to Title IV-eligible students was arbitrary and capricious.

On April 21, ED issued an updated guidance for distributing emergency funding that, among other things, excluded students in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which California Community Colleges said was not the intent of Congress. The expansive system — made of 73 districts and 115 colleges with 114 campuses — collectively serves 2.1 million students, about 70,000 of whom are living in the country illegally, though many of those students have DACA status.

The challenge argues that ED is “arbitrarily placing eligibility restrictions on emergency relief funds that Congress intended to help students defray additional educational costs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which exclude hundreds of thousands of students, including undocumented students, [DACA] recipients, and many students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents,” the lawsuit reads. 

According to California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, ED has “ignored the intent of the CARES Act” and has excluded as many as 800,000 community college students in California from being eligible for the emergency aid. 

Included in those 800,000 are, according to the lawsuit, “more than 150,000 economically disadvantaged students; more than 26,000 students with disabilities; over 12,000 veterans and 1,750 active duty service members; approximately 100,000 students training for essential work in health services; and over 80,000 students training to be first responders.” 

Meanwhile, many in the higher education community, including NASFAA, have expressed concern that in its attempt to box out DACA students, ED may be unintentionally harming larger swaths of students, as Section 484 in Title IV of the Higher Education Act outlines eligibility requirements beyond those touching on citizenship.

Several community college districts also listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit detailed how the change in guidance upended plans for distributing the grants that were already in the works. The Los Angeles Community College District, for example, stated in the lawsuit that restricting the emergency grants to only Title IV-eligible students lowered the number of recipients in that district by about 16,000, down to 44,000 from 66,000. 

Likewise, the Los Rios Community College District near Sacramento had an initial plan that would have provided grants to about 58,000 students with “demonstrated financial need.” But following the April 21 guidance, the district shifted its model to only distribute awards to FAFSA filers, lowering the number to 21,000.

While ED could issue additional guidance to clarify student eligibility, it is unlikely that the department will reinterpret the legislation to include DACA recipients.

In an interview that was published April 27, DeVos reiterated ED’s reasoning for excluding DACA students from the emergency aid.

“That's kind of the distinction that Congress was explicit about in the law. Students that receive Title IV funding — funding from the federal government for federal student aid — are the universe of students that we want and need to help most directly,” DeVos said. “Congress had the opportunity to write the law a different way. They chose not to. And I’m there to follow the law.”

As the judiciary branch takes this issue into consideration, some are hopeful that as Congress continues to craft aid packages the next relief effort will include clarifying language to prevent ED from narrowing its implementation of student aid. In fact, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, released by House Democrats on Tuesday, prevents ED, retroactively, from imposing student eligibility restrictions on higher education emergency relief funds allocated in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“I think Congress definitely has the power here to make it very clear in their language that all students should be included in all benefits,” said Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, state and local policy manager for United We Dream. “They definitely have the power to include undocumented and DACA recipients in [COVID-19 aid packages] as well.”

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: 5/13/2020

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