Washington Watch: More ED guidance on CARES Act student funds

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As early as April 20, the U.S. Education Department (ED) is expected to issue further guidance on the rules that campuses must follow as they administer student emergency grants authorized by the massive CARES Act, which the president signed last month. 

As of the weekend, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) wasn’t aware of any institution receiving its first allocation under the formula grants that provide about $3.3 billion to community colleges and $12.6 billion overall. Many, if not most, colleges already have applied for the funds since materials were sent to colleges on April 9.

ED is likely waiting to release the funds until it finalizes the anticipated guidance in order to avoid inadvertent non-compliance by colleges.

Tighter guidance? 

The CARES Act formula grants program was drafted in a broad fashion that seemed to give institutions wide flexibility for allocating funds to students, within the clear intent of Congress to deliver grants as quickly and efficiently as possible, in an effort to respond to the disruptions and changes in personal economic circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, the reality is that the new information from ED may constrain colleges from implementing their previous plans for distributing the emergency grants. AACC-member colleges are using a broad array of approaches to allocating aid. Some of these were highlighted in last week’s AACC webinar on the CARES Act. 

The department also is expected to soon provide more information on how colleges may spend the other half of the CARES Act’s formula grants – funds for institutions to “prepare, prevent, and respond to” the coronavirus, with a focus on the additional costs of instruction created by the pandemic. These specifications will hopefully be accompanied by funding. Colleges can also use any amount of these funds for emergency grants to students.

AACC advocacy on many fronts

AACC hopes that the CARES Act represents only the first bonus of federal funding designed to help institutions and their students adapt to the coronavirus. The association, which represents 1,050 of the nation’s public two-year institutions, has a series of proposals that it is asking institutions to reinforce, even given a highly fluid legislative environment. 

This advocacy is essential, given the pressures on Congress and the Trump administration to address virtually every sector of the society. 

In addition to this funding, the association is pursuing a variety of changes to the Higher Education Act (HEA) and other laws to ensure that institutions remain in compliance with all applicable federal requirements. (On that note, ED is rumored to be on the verge of releasing new final regulations on Title IX, but hopefully, the wisdom of that will be re-evaluated.)  

AACC is also working to generate opportunities for colleges to access loan capital on a favorable basis and to secure changes in the tax code to help students finance their education.

Related article: Seeking a ‘safe harbor’ for colleges implementing the CARES Act

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.