Calif. colleges sue ED over CARES grants

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Five community college districts in California and the state’s community college system filed a lawsuit in federal court on Monday against the U.S. Education Department (ED), charging that its decision to deny emergency aid to hundreds of thousands of students violates the intent of the government’s stimulus aid package.

“The Department of Education ignored the intent of the CARES Act to give local colleges discretion to aid students most affected by the pandemic, and instead has arbitrarily excluded as many as 800,000 community college students,” according to California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley.

The plaintiffs include Foothill-De Anza, Los Rios, Los Angeles, State Center, and San Diego community college districts.

DACA students excluded

The suit states that when Congress passed the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which is part of the CARES Act, colleges were given discretion on how to allocate the funds to students.

But ED issued a guidance document that prohibited colleges from using the funds to assist undocumented and other categories of students who are ineligible for financial aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act.

Among those excluded are students with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) status, students who have temporary protected status, asylum applicants, veterans, citizens who have not completed a federal financial aid application, students in default on a federal loan, dual-enrollment students, students without a high school diploma and non-credit students.

Mixed messaging

ED “issued conflicting interpretations on HEERF assistance eligibility, and ultimately, restricted eligibility in a manner not intended by Congress,” according to the lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco.

HEERF authorized approximately $12.6 billion for colleges and universities. At least half of a college’s allocation must go toward emergency financial aid grants to students for expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus. Students can use the grants for food, housing, course materials, technology, healthcare and childcare.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos informed colleges on April 9 that they have “significant discretion” on how to allocate the HEERF grants to students, and that “each institution may develop its own system and process for determining how to allocate these funds, which may include distributing the funds to all students or only to students who demonstrate significant need.”

Then on April 21, ED “drastically changed its interpretation of the CARES Act without acknowledging its prior position,” the lawsuit charged.

The new guidelines state that only U.S. citizens or certain noncitizens who are eligible for financial aid under Title IV may receive the emergency grants.

Among those excluded, the lawsuit said, are approximately 150,000 economically disadvantaged students, more than 26,000 students with disabilities, over 12,000 veterans and 1,750 active-duty service members, 100,000 students training for essential work in health services and more than 80,000 students training to be first responders.

Budgets threatened

The lawsuit said ED’s “unlawful eligibility requirements unfairly and erroneously” limit which students may receive emergency assistance during a pandemic and that inflicts “irreparable harm on plaintiffs and their students” by curtailing access to education.

ED’s limitations would especially put students in need “at a higher risk of withdrawing from college, which threatens colleges’ overall budget and revenues and undermines their academic missions and the character and diversity of their student bodies.” the suit said.

The plantiffs also argued that complying with ED’s rules requires colleges to divert staff and resources to reviewing students’ records and to find alternative means of support for students ineligible for HEERF grants.

They asked the court to declare the eligibility requirements as unlawful and unconstitutional because they violate the separation of powers, exceed congressional authority and violate the CARES Act.

Community colleges shortchanged

In related news, a report from the Center for American Progress said the CARES Act shortchanges community colleges by using a formula to allocate funds that favors institutions with many full-time students or with large graduate student populations.

“The formula underestimates need at already low-resourced community colleges that serve far more low-income students,” the report said. While community colleges educate almost 40 percent of U.S. undergraduates, they received only about 27 percent of CARES funds, it said.

To correct that imbalance, the report recommended that any new COVID-19 relief funding for higher education give greater weight to community colleges by basing funding on total student headcount instead of full-time equivalent enrollment.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.