Federal Judge Blocks ED Policy Restricting CARES Act Grant Eligibility in Washington

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

A federal judge has sided with Washington state's attorney general Bob Ferguson and blocked the Department of Education's (ED) Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act guidance restricting emergency grant eligibility from being carried out in the state.

ED on Thursday issued a preview of its interim final rule, doubling down on its position that only Title IV-eligible students can receive the funding, and had urged the court to toss out the legal challenge due to ongoing rulemaking. But the ruling prevents ED from "implementing or enforcing the provisions" of both the April 21 guidance and the interim final rule.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice granted Ferguson’s motion for preliminary injunction, which only applies to students in Washington state, but still serves as a blow to the department’s implementation of its policy on eligibility for the grants distributed from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) established in the CARES Act. 

“The harm to students that stems from the eligibility restriction is not only the inability to access HEERF funds; the harm is in the inability to access these emergency funds in a timely manner,” Rice wrote in his ruling. “Absent injunctive relief, students will continue to be denied access to emergency relief funds to which they are likely otherwise entitled.”

Rice also noted, however, that the preliminary injunction "does not lift the restrictions" of federal welfare law that prevents international students, those living in the country illegally, and those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program from receiving public benefits.

Many in the higher education community, including NASFAA, have expressed concern that in its attempt to box out students living in the country illegally, those in the DACA program, and international 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.

“Today we beat Betsy DeVos in court. A Spokane federal judge blocked the Trump Administration's unlawful attempt to deprive thousands of Washington college students [of] critical aid Congress intended for them,” Ferguson said.

ED also faces a lawsuit in California from the California Community Colleges System, which also is challenging the department’s guidance on how to distribute the emergency grants.

A decision from the California case is expected soon.


Publication Date: 6/12/2020

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