The Education Department says just $6 million of $6.28 billion in emergency aid for college students has reached campuses so far, and officials are trading accusations with college leaders over the slow pace of a rollout that's left students waiting for help.
The money is intended to directly assist students for help with needs like housing or food, under the $2 trillion economic rescue package signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27. Weeks later, there's still incomplete guidance from the department for colleges on how they will specifically be allowed to distribute the money to students, even as billions from other programs in the rescue legislation like small business loans and rebate checks are in recipients’ hands.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced on April 9 that she was moving to "immediately distribute" the $6.28 billion. It was the first tranche of the nearly $31 billion in overall education aid included in the stimulus law that the Trump administration announced was available.
DeVos “prioritized releasing these funds and made it as simple as possible for schools to access them,” said Angela Morabito, a department spokesperson.
The Education Department is placing blame on colleges, accusing college leaders of “dragging their feet” in submitting applications for money allocated in the bill. Only 27 percent of the more than 5,000 colleges eligible for the program had submitted the paperwork needed to access the funding by Friday, according to the department.
But the department has yet to fully distribute millions of dollars even to those colleges that have applied for the assistance. And higher education groups say the program has been beset by bureaucratic hiccups, confusion over the rules and a lack of guidance from the government.
Department officials are working on a policy that explains in more detail how the higher education stimulus money can be used, but it hasn’t been released publicly yet. Colleges, which apply for the aid on behalf of their students, are reluctant to dole out the money before they know the full rules that will govern the program.
Under the stimulus law, colleges are supposed to receive billions in federal funding, based on the number of students on their campus, to distribute to students in emergency cash grants. The money is aimed at helping students cover expenses stemming from the coronavirus, such as food, housing, health care and child care costs, technology and course materials.
“It’s tragic that at a time when students are struggling to make ends meet, too many highly capable and intelligent leaders of higher ed institutions are dragging their feet and claiming it’s because there’s some lack of clarity in the law,” Morabito said in a statement. “The law is clear, as was the Secretary—give this money to students to support their continued learning and be able to purchase technology, instructional material, food, housing and health care.”
Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, pushed back against the department’s criticism of how colleges were approaching the aid, which they lobbied Congress to include in the stimulus law.
“It’s really wrong for the department to suggest that schools don’t want the money when they have not sent out a dime to the schools who have applied and can’t tell any school what the rules are for spending it,” Hartle said in an interview on Friday. “If there is a problem, it is that the department is still figuring out how to implement the law.”
Morabito acknowledged that the department was still processing pending applications submitted by colleges — a task that she said the agency hoped to complete “as quickly as possible.” She said that more than $6 million in funding had gone “out the door” by Friday, though the department declined to identify which colleges had received that money.
The emergency financial aid can be used by college students for things like technology, course materials, food, shelter, health care and child care costs. But it will be up to each college to decide how to distribute its allotment of the funding among their students. Some colleges have said they'll dole out the money similar to how they award need-based financial aid while others have said they may require students to submit a request for the money.
Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said colleges are still waiting on the department to release more information about how they are allowed to spend the money. Colleges are concerned that they could be penalized in the future for running afoul of guidelines that they haven’t yet seen, he said.
“Schools are working in good faith to get this money out as quickly as they can. But they are also concerned about distributing money when they know more guidance is coming,” Draeger said. “Many schools have their plans drawn up and ready to go and are just waiting for their money and final guidance” from the Education Department.
Morabito, the department spokesperson, confirmed on Sunday evening that more guidance is “forthcoming.”
Among the issues that colleges want the department to clarify is whether DACA recipients are eligible to receive the emergency aid. The stimulus law doesn’t prohibit undocumented students from accessing the money — unlike other federal financial aid programs, which include such restrictions. But there are questions over whether other federal laws governing benefits for undocumented immigrants apply to the stimulus funding.
Colleges also want to know whether students can direct their college to apply the emergency grants to charges they owe to the school, such as for tuition or fees. The Education Department has said only that the money must be used exclusively for expenses incurred by students, not costs incurred by the college.
“We want them to get the funds to students as quickly as possible,” DeVos said at the time. The money is “intended to help students now, not months from now, so it’s our hope and expectation that institutions will take that responsibility seriously.”