ED Issues HEERF III Guidance, All Grants Now Include DACA, Undocumented, and International Students

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

On Tuesday, the Department of Education (ED) released new guidance on the third round of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grants authorized by the American Rescue Plan. The department also released institutional allocations for HEERF III grants to public and nonprofit institutions, as well as proprietary institutions.  

In this latest guidance, the department provided additional ways in which institutions can utilize the recently enacted $36 billion in emergency grants to support vulnerable students, monitor and suppress the coronavirus, and re-engage students whose education was disrupted by the pandemic. In a shift from the previous administration, the guidance, including a new final rule on student eligibility, also allows undocumented students, those enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and international students to access the emergency grants.

"Denying emergency grants to DACA and undocumented students wasn't just legally questionable, it was a moral failing," said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. "I'm relieved and thankful to see that corrected today." 

The final rule now defines student eligibility for the grants as "any individual who is or was enrolled at an eligible institution on or after March 13, 2020, the date of declaration of the national emergency due to the coronavirus." Therefore, it is no longer required that students be (or could be) Title IV-eligible, as they were for funds issued through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Newly published FAQs answer the question on whether emergency grants can be used for DACA, undocumented, and international students plainly, stating:  

  • "The Department's final rule on student eligibility for HEERF states that all students who are or were enrolled in an institution of higher education during the COVID-19 national emergency are eligible for emergency financial aid grants from the HEERF, regardless of whether they completed a FAFSA or are eligible for Title IV. That includes citizens, permanent residents, refugees, asylum seekers, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients, other DREAMers, and similar undocumented students.

International students may also receive HEERF. However, as noted in Questions 11 and 12, institutions must ensure that funds go to students who have exceptional need. The Department encourages institutions to prioritize domestic students, especially undergraduates, in allocating this funding. This includes citizens, permanent residents, refugees, asylum seekers, DACA recipients, other DREAMers, and similar undocumented students."

The guidance highlights ways in which institutions can spend their student and institutional allocations, and reiterates that schools may not use HEERF grant funds to advertise or recruit students by promoting the opportunity to receive a student emergency financial aid grant, nor may schools include HEERF grants in their financial aid packaging, as they are not considered financial aid. 

Of particular note for financial aid offices, the new FAQs also define the direct outreach required by aid offices to notify students about the opportunity for adjustments via Professional Judgment due to unemployment or other circumstances. "Direct outreach" requires an institution to actively engage aid applicants, and should be more than a "passive notification," according to ED. 

NASFAA has begun analyzing the new guidance, along with the final rule, and updating its COVID-19 Web Center and AskRegs Knowledgebase, and publishing new guidance in Today's News over the coming days. In addition, join the NASFAA staff for a webinar reviewing this new guidance on Friday, May 21. 

"With this action, thousands of institutions will be able to provide direct relief to students who need it most, so we can make sure that we not only recover from the pandemic, but also build back even stronger than before," said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. 

ED aims for the additional guidance to help better target resources to all students with exceptional financial need and signify a broader commitment to providing support, resources, and guidance to institutions, students, and communities throughout the pandemic.

For more details on HEERF guidance visit NASFAA's COVID-19 Web Center and follow our Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) Reference Pages.


Publication Date: 5/11/2021

Deven D | 5/12/2021 8:21:59 PM

Can someone at NASFAA or the Feds define "exceptional need".

Helen F | 5/11/2021 4:34:54 PM

Second question: In reading through the final rule on student eligibility for HEERF emergency grants, am I correct in interpreting that this guidance applies retroactively to all three HEERF tranches? In other words, if an institution still has remaining CARES and/or CRRSAA funds, could these funds be distributed to DACA, undocumented, and international students?

Helen F | 5/11/2021 4:32:16 PM

The answer to question 39 was surprising, given that the statute clearly allows through September 30, 2023 to expend HEERF III funds. It states that "Institutions generally must expend their HEERF grant funds within one year from the date when the Department processed the most recent obligation of funds for each specific grant." Can we request clarification of whether this one-year limitation applies to HEERF III?

Joel T | 5/11/2021 3:1:58 PM

So you can't use it for recruitment, you can't package it as part of the aid package, but you're supposed to give it to anyone with a pulse and prioritize those with "exceptional need" even though you have no real way to gauge said need..

Sounds super easy and I'm sure ED will be so whimsical and kind in our audits and/or program reviews.

If there's any chance NASFAA could focus on getting us clear guidance and direction instead of a list of 50+ questions that leave as many questions as they answer, at times, while refraining from commenting on the "morality" of federal policy I think we'd all be appreciative.

Ahmed J | 5/11/2021 2:27:10 PM

"All students who are or were enrolled in an institution of higher education during the
COVID-19 national emergency are eligible for emergency financial aid grants from the
HEERF, regardless of whether they completed a FAFSA or are eligible for Title IV." Question: how the school would determine exceptional need without socio-economic data calculated in FAFSA for those students who don't complete FAFSA or are not eligible to TitleIV?

David S | 5/11/2021 2:24:46 PM

Great news. While my institution has our own emergency aid, but my population is 50% international, and we have a few undocumented immigrants. When we get a resource that half of our students don't qualify for, it's frustrating not to be able to assist everyone. The tricky part now will be determining and documenting "exceptional need" among students who don't complete a FAFSA.

David H | 5/11/2021 10:47:44 AM

Per FAQ 11, we can't "(1) condition the receipt of emergency financial aid grants to students on continued or future enrollment in the institution", but can we have initial enrollment requirements? Can we award grants to currently enrolled or matriculated fall 21 students before the semester starts? If we offer them grants before the semester starts, and they drop the courses before they start, do we still have to pay grants to students who never attend any fall classes. Can we award different amounts to full-time and part-time students, and what if full-time students drop to part-time before the semester starts. ED has not provided answers to these critical questions, which leaves us twisting in the wind and unable to offer aid to students in need. How many more months will go by before we get answers to questions that should have been in this FAQ?

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