Federal policy change leaves millions of students out of pandemic-related emergency aid

Across the US, countless individuals and families have been adversely affected by Covid-19, including the millions of workers and students enrolled in postsecondary programs. While Congress recently approved nearly $15 billion in postsecondary educational stabilization funding—part of which is designated for emergency grants to students—subsequent guidance issued by the Department of Education (ED) has excluded millions of working adults and other non-traditional students from relief.

National Skills Coalition calls on ED and Congress to course correct by taking swift action to ensure all current and future students—particularly those with the greatest financial need—have access to emergency grant funding, wrap-around services and tuition assistance during this pandemic and beyond.

Non-traditional students have historically been left out of federal higher education policy and the new guidance exacerbates that trend. By reversing course, federal policymakers can ensure that vital relief is reaching students who are in urgent need—many of whom are training for or already working in essential jobs.


Congress responds with CARES Act support for postsecondary institutions and students

To help offset the costs incurred by institutions of higher education as a result of COVID-19 and ensure supportive services remain available to students, Congress authorized a $30 billion Educational Stabilization Fund as part of the CARES Act—the third stimulus bill signed into law since the beginning of March. The CARES Act carved out $15 billion of this fund to go directly to institutions of higher education (IHEs), including community and technical colleges.

The CARES Act stipulated that once IHEs received their portion of stabilization funding, they were to disperse at least half of their total allocation to students in the form of direct emergency aid—including grants to students for food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and child care. The other half of the funding could then be used by institutions to offset the costs of technological equipment and infrastructure, loss of revenue driven by decreased enrollment and employee retention.


Problematic guidance issued by the Department of Education

Shortly after the CARES Act was signed into law, ED Secretary DeVos sent a letter to IHEs stating that each institution was permitted to set their own parameters around individual student eligibility for direct emergency aid. This flexible guidance was welcomed by educational leaders—particularly community and technical college leaders who serve a high number of non-traditional students in need of wrap-around services.

However, on April 21, the Department reversed course and issued a FAQ document about emergency financial grants to students, which rolled back these flexibilities, stating that only students who were eligible for Higher Education Act Title IV federal financial aid under current law may receive emergency funding. The guidance further states that students who are eligible for aid include those who have filed a FAFSA, are eligible to file one, and are U.S. citizens or eligible non-citizens.


Adverse impact on adult and other nontraditional students

While this recent ED guidance may seem innocuous, in reality the decision to use Title IV aid as an eligibility requirement for access to emergency grants, is preventing millions of students from receiving vital pandemic-related aid.

Among the students who will not be able to receive emergency aid under ED’s new guidance are:

  • Students enrolled in shorter-term programs. Notably, many community and technical college students are ineligible for Title IV aid solely due to the types of courses they are choosing to enroll in. Under current law, students are only eligible for needs-based federal financial aid, including Pell Grants, if they are enrolled in a course that is at least 600 clock hours over 15 weeks of instruction. This “seat-time” requirement often prevents students seeking high-quality, short-term education and training programs that lead to in-demand jobs from benefitting from federal tuition assistance, and will now also prevent them from receiving emergency aid.

NSC has long recognized the inequities students enrolled in short-term programs have faced and has advocated for the modernization of federal financial aid to be more responsive to the needs of today’s students. Specifically, NSC has called on Congress to pass the JOBS Act as part of a comprehensive Higher Education Act reauthorization, which would make low-income students attending courses that are at least 150 clock hours over 8 weeks of instruction eligible for Pell grants, so long as the courses meet a number of quality assurance criteria laid out in the bill. While the JOBS Act has enjoyed bipartisan, bicameral support, it has yet to move forward in the legislative process; resulting in many underserved community college students weathering the storm of this pandemic without access to tuition assistance or federal emergency aid.

  • Students with Temporary Protected Status, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, or undocumented status. Hundreds of thousands of students in the US fall outside of the categories used to determine immigrant eligibility for traditional federal financial aid. Yet, these students are contributing members of their higher education communities, and many are working in essential jobs. Excluding them from emergency aid is a short-sighted decision that will have severe ripple effects on the lives and livelihoods of students themselves, as well as the enrollment numbers and economic stability of the institutions they attend.
  • Working students who have been displaced from their jobs as a result of COVID-19. To qualify for needs-based Title IV Aid under the Higher Education Act, students must demonstrate financial need. Financial aid administrators use several pieces of information to determine student need including taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits. Students who were working full-or-part-time while enrolled in a postsecondary program prior to COVID-19 may be deemed ineligible for emergency grants based on their pre-pandemic earnings or the fact that they are now receiving Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits.

ED addressed this issue in 2009 during the Great Recession by issuing guidance to financial aid administrators that encouraged them to use their flexibility—also known as “professional judgement”—to exempt Unemployment Insurance (UI) payments from financial aid determinations. Many of today’s financial aid administrators may not remember the 2009 “Dear Colleague” letters (GEN 09-04 and GEN 09-05) and most students do not know of their ability to adjust financial aid eligibility based on their special circumstances—a reality that will leave many working students without access to emergency grants.

  • Students enrolled in postsecondary programs that are fully online. According to the Community College Research Center (CCRC), almost 13% of all community college students are enrolled exclusively in distance education courses. Many of today’s students are balancing family and work obligations while working towards a postsecondary credential or degree, and online courses can provide them with increased flexibility. However, fully online students have been deemed ineligible for emergency aid based on the fact that these students did not rely on on-campus housing prior to the pandemic. This decision does not take into account the childcare, health care, and nutrition related needs of online students as they adjust to a new normal driven by COVID-19.
  • Adult education students attending community colleges. Many community colleges offer programs for adult students who have not yet earned a high school credential. These students may be pursuing sequential programs that allow them to build foundational skills before processing to credit-bearing courses, or Integrated Education and Training (IET) programs that allow them to quickly master foundational skills while earning an industry-recognized credential. In either case, these students are especially vulnerable to economic shocks or other pandemic-related disruption of the educational and vocational goals. Unless they have gained access through the “Ability to Benefit” provision, most of these students are not eligible for federal financial aid, yet they are a vital part of the pipeline of essential workers and future postsecondary students. Providing them with emergency aid is essential to helping them maintain momentum.


What actions are needed now?

  • The Department of Education should immediately roll back their April 21 guidance around pandemic-related emergency aid for postsecondary students. Postsecondary institution leaders have seen first-hand the adverse impact COVID-19 has had on the students they serve. To assist them in serving their most vulnerable students, ED should re-grant power to individual institutions and allow them to set their own parameters around individual eligibility for direct emergency aid, so long as these parameters advance equity and access.
  • ED should re-issue guidance to financial aid administrators, reminding them of the flexibility to exempt Unemployment Insurance (UI) payments from financial aid determinations. This flexibility was provided to financial aid offices during the Great Recession in 2009 and considering the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on today’s students, it should be quickly reinstated.
  • Congress should ensure future stimulus bills include educational stabilization funding that explicitly mandates its availability to all students. As Democrats in the House work towards finalizing language for a CARES 2.0 package, policymakers in both chambers should advocate for additional educational stabilization funding that is explicitly inclusive of all students—regardless of the type of postsecondary program they are enrolled in or their immigration status.
  • Congress should support more of today’s students through federal policy by:
    • Passing the Dream and Promise Act (H.R. 6). This bill, which has already been passed in the House, would ensure a sustainable pathway to citizenship for DACA, TPS and undocumented students.
    • Passing the Jumpstarting our Businesses by Supporting Students (JOBS) Act (S. 839, H.R. 3497). This bill bipartisan, bicameral bill would make students attending high-quality, short-term programs—including working adults and other nontraditional students—eligible for needs-based Pell grants.

NSC looks forward to continuing to work with Congress and the Administration to support education leaders and today’s students during this pandemic and beyond.