By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter
Higher education institutions are still struggling to disburse emergency aid grants to students allocated in the last federal coronavirus relief package, largely attributing their issues to confusing and inconsistent guidance from the Department of Education (ED), according to a survey of NASFAA member institutions.
Member institutions overwhelmingly responded that the April 21 guidance from ED mandating that emergency aid grants from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act be limited to Title IV-eligible students caused a major hurdle in issuing the grants to students in a timely manner, with 72% saying ED’s guidance did not provide enough direction.
The survey was distributed to 2,606 primary contacts at NASFAA member institutions with 587 surveys submitted, resulting in a 23% response rate.
Notably, more than 80% of respondents across all sectors said the fact that ED released multiple rounds of guidance regarding the CARES Act has either greatly or somewhat delayed their ability to disburse emergency grants to students.
ED’s April 21 guidance both left schools confused, they responded, and had Democrats alleging ED undermined “clear congressional intent” in the legislation.
Without the guidance from ED making clear that only Title IV-eligible students could receive the emergency aid grants, less than 10% of member institutions who responded said they would have used that criteria on their own. Furthermore, more than 50% of respondents said the guidance greatly altered their plans for distributing the funds, and only 3% said it did not alter their plans at all.
Roughly 75% of institutions surveyed — including both public and private two-year and four-year institutions — said they would require a FAFSA on file for students to receive emergency grants. Students are essentially required to complete a FAFSA as the most practicable way to determine whether they are Title IV-eligible.
Overall, less than one-third said they had disbursed emergency grant aid to students. Of the respondents who had yet to disburse funding, 42% said they were waiting on additional guidance from ED, and 69% said they were still developing their plans and policies for giving the funding to students.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents who were able to disburse emergency grants to students said they did so because they felt pressure, and only 21% said they did so because they were confident ED would not release additional guidance that would force them to change their awarding and disbursement process.
As for how schools are ensuring students receive the grants, more than 40% of member institutions said they are using a combination of pre-identified students and applications to distribute the funding, while 32% said they were using only an application to identify students.
Schools also overwhelmingly reported feeling greatly or somewhat concerned they will be held accountable with regard to how they administer the emergency grants to students. ED’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a plan earlier this month detailing how it will provide oversight as ED allocates the roughly $14 billion for higher education, saying it would pay particular attention to how institutions are disbursing the student emergency grants.
In order for institutions to receive the funding for students, they had to fill out and sign a certification agreement ED made available in early April. Of the NASFAA member institutions who have been approved to receive emergency grants for students, 41% said finding the certification form was extremely or somewhat easy, and more than 60% said completing the form was either extremely or somewhat easy.
The survey comes as ED continues to face criticism over its April 21 guidance. The California Community Colleges System filed a lawsuit against ED, alleging its reasoning for limiting funds to only Title IV-eligible students was arbitrary and capricious.
Additionally, several higher education groups — including NASFAA — have criticized ED and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for narrowing the eligibility requirements.
“In pursuing a political win, the administration ended up disqualifying entire swaths of other students who did not, or cannot, complete a FAFSA,” NASFAA President and CEO Justin Draeger wrote in an op-ed published by Inside Higher Ed. “[ED] will not change course, and emergency grants will be gone before this can be litigated.”
Publication Date: 5/15/2020