Judge blocks ED rule excluding certain college students from CARES Act grants

U.S. Education Department (Photo: Matthew Dembicki)

A federal judge on Wednesday issued a preliminary injunction that prevents the U.S. Education Department (ED) from imposing any student eligibility requirements in distributing CARES Act emergency grants to California community college students.

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers blocked ED from restricting the emergency student grants — which help cover food, housing and other unexpected expenses due to the coronavirus — to undocumented students, international students and U.S. citizens who don’t qualify for federal student aid. The California Community College System last month filed a federal lawsuit against ED over implementing its guidance to distribute CARES Act funds to students.

Rogers ruled that California would likely prevail in its argument that ED illegally added restrictions to the CARES Act funding that were not authorized by Congress.

ED’s exclusion would prevent as many as 800,000 California community college students from receiving emergency assistance that Congress approved to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said in a statement.

“Among those who have been harmed by the guidance issued by the Department of Education are veterans, citizens who have not completed a federal financial aid application, and non-citizens, including undocumented students and those with DACA status,” he said. “Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers’ ruling is good news for all students who have been denied the assistance that Congress intended for them during this public health crisis.”

Other actions

Meanwhile, ED’s final rule pertaining to the CARES Act guidance was published Wednesday in the Federal Register and goes into effect immediately.

Last Friday, a federal judge in Washington state temporarily blocked ED from implementing certain eligibility restrictions on CARES Act emergency student grants in the state. However, that ruling didn’t decide whether ED could continue to deny aid to undocumented students based on another law. The department has argued that the CARES Act ties eligibility requirements for the grants to other federal student aid eligibility, which often excludes undocumented students, most international students and some students who don’t demonstrate adequate academic progress.

But Rogers said that community colleges are likely to prevail on whether undocumented students can receive CARES Act emergency grants.

“Nowhere does (The CARES Act) mention or otherwise incorporate restrictions on the types of students eligible for aid,” Rogers wrote.

Potential impact

Rogers added that ED’s interpretation of the CARES Act would exclude hundreds of thousands of students — including those in low-income communities and communities of color, which have been affected disproportionately by COVID-19 — from receiving the grants. ED’s interpretation also excludes students who are the “lifeblood” of the state’s economy and are on the frontlines of the pandemic, she wrote.

“Among those excluded would be 150,000 students who likely qualify as economically disadvantaged; 100,000 students training for essential work in health services; 80,000 students training to be first responders; 26,000 students with disabilities; 12,000 veterans; 1,700 active duty service members; and many more first generation college attendees, single mothers, formerly incarcerated individuals, at-risk foster youth, hourly-wage workers, and students facing job loss and severe food and housing insecurity,” according to the ruling.

ED said that it plans to appeal the rulings in California and Washington state.

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