Working Students and New Graduates Eligible for CARES Act Unemployment Benefits

By Muhammad Kara & Rachel Gentry, NASFAA Policy & Federal Relations Staff

As the unemployment rate climbs to its highest level since the Great Depression, more than 38 million Americans have filed new unemployment claims in the last three months. When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March, it expanded unemployment insurance (UI) benefits eligibility to workers impacted by COVID-19 and substantially increased the amount of assistance provided. 

The bill created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program — modeled after the existing Disaster Unemployment Assistance program — which provides UI benefits to many workers who would usually be ineligible for state UI programs. In addition to workers who are self-employed or work part-time, full-time students who were also working prior to the pandemic will greatly benefit from the expanded UI eligibility included in the CARES Act. 

Working college students are often left out of traditional unemployment insurance (UI) programs. While eligibility varies by state, many students have historically been ineligible to receive benefits because they do not have sufficient work history, do not earn enough to qualify for the minimum benefits, or are enrolled as full-time students and are thus considered “unable and unavailable to work.” In nearly 20 states, all part-time workers are ineligible for UI benefits regardless of their student status.

These gaps in UI eligibility are particularly concerning given the large numbers of college students who rely on part- and full-time work to pay their monthly expenses. Nearly 50% of college students are financially independent and roughly two-thirds work while enrolled in classes, totaling about about 11 million working students. Many working students come from low-income backgrounds and rely on income earned from full- or part-time work  to meet their basic needs. As universities transitioned to online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, some students lost jobs as they moved off campus, or their employers were forced to temporarily close. 

Fortunately, the CARES Act ensured that many students who have lost jobs and income due to COVID-19 will be eligible for the same enhanced UI benefits as other workers. The Department of Labor (DOL) issued guidance in late April confirming that a full-time student who was working part-time is eligible for assistance through the PUA program, which includes $600 each week in addition to UI benefits calculated by their state (which are, on average, a minimum of $190 per week). The additional $600 in benefits provided through the CARES Act is from late March through the end of July 2020. 

Students will qualify for benefits if they are unemployed, partially unemployed, unable or unavailable to work because the individual:

  • Has been diagnosed or is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 (or household members are);
  • Is providing care for a family or household member who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, or for a child whose school or child care center closed due to COVID-19;
  • Is unable to get to work or commence employment due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions, a business shutdown due to emergency declarations, self-quarantine, a job offer reversal, or is an independent contractor forced to suspend operations;
  • Has become the head of household due to a COVID-19 death; or
  • Is unable to work due to health ramifications of previous COVID-19 experience.

Under the CARES Act provisions and DOL guidance, the following groups of students should now eligible for UI benefits in all states if they are unemployed due to one of the criteria listed above:

  • Students who were enrolled full-time and working part-time.
  • Students who were enrolled part-time and working, but who did not earn enough to qualify for regular UI.
  • Students graduating in spring 2020 who lost a job during the semester due to COVID-19 (regardless of whether they had secured a post-graduation employment offer).
  • Students who work for gig economy platforms, like Uber or Lyft, or were self-employed (as tutors, etc.) but lost that income stream because of COVID-19.
  • Recent graduates who have a post-graduation or summer offer of employment that falls through due to COVID-19, even if they were not working while enrolled in school.

While the CARES Act did greatly expand UI eligibility, it did not address all student populations. The bill does not extend eligibility to recent graduates still searching for jobs who were not employed while enrolled in school, or who did not have a firm job offer. It also does not address students who were forced to move away and stop working when their on-campus dormitory closed, but whose place of unemployment remained operational. These student workers could be ineligible for UI if they are considered to have voluntarily quit their job.

In order to access the UI benefits provided under the CARES Act, students should file a claim with the unemployment insurance program in the state where they worked. Information on where to apply can be found at, a website sponsored by DOL. Many states have had to make changes to their existing UI systems to accommodate qualified students who may be eligible for PUA. While students should apply as soon as possible after being laid off, the benefits will be provided retroactively, meaning an eligible worker who lost a job in April but couldn’t apply for UI benefits until June will receive benefits dating back to the time they were laid off. Because of the special provisions included in the CARES Act, these benefits could deliver thousands of dollars of support to unemployed students that could help them (and their families) pay the bills and continue their education.

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: 6/10/2020

Michael Jones | 8/31/2020 7:38:27 PM

Can I apply for student benefit if I receive benefits from my lost job?

Susan M | 8/8/2020 1:37:54 AM

I am a single mom and it’s been driving me crazy to hear about all these emerging adults, with no kids, getting thousands in Ui & then go buy plane tickets to go on vacations and buying new cars. And when they only worked maybe a week at there first job ever. When there are struggling families who are receiving nothing. This should not be happening.

Susan M | 8/8/2020 1:30:40 AM

Hey Gedalya, I am wondering the same! I am very sure my whole family got COVID back in December and I had to quit my job to stay home with sick kids. Then a few months later we hear about this virus and everyone’s on unemployment. It’s crazy!

Gedalya G | 6/10/2020 9:42:40 AM

Does this include students whose only employment was Federal Work Study?

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