Changing federal guidelines, logistical hiccups delay emergency grants for college students

Esosa Ruffin, a political science student at the Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ, was doing an internship with the Council for Opportunity in Education when Congress passed the CARES Act, a federal stimulus bill, in late March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

She knew that emergency aid would soon be available to college students across the country, including those at Monmouth. Ruffin graduated in May, and the university informed some students that scholarships were available.

“When I heard about Monmouth students getting an email, I was like, ‘OK, that’s good, they’re giving the money to the students,'” Ruffin said. “But I found it odd that I hadn’t received an email.”

Ruffin said she is a low-income student and her tuition, fees and room and board were paid for earlier in the year through a combination of a Pell grant, loans and other financial help. The system that Monmouth first used to distribute emergency grants excluded students with no unmet financial need, defined as the direct cost of attending less the expected financial contribution of the student’s family, scholarships, bursaries, subsidized loans, federal work studies, and graduate assistant financial aid . Ruffin was among the expelled students, along with more than 250 other Pell-eligible students.

Ruffin and a group of concerned students and alumni brought the problem to the university, and Monmouth responded. As of June 10, the university had awarded more than 2,800 scholarships to 2,196 undergraduate and 629 graduate students, said Morganne Dudzinski, spokeswoman for the university. Ruffin was notified on June 3 that she would receive an $800 stipend.

The grant issue, which has left hundreds of low-income students in emergency limbo, is just one example of how colleges and universities have struggled to hand out CARES Act-funded grants on the fly, though critics say there are clear, consistent There are no guidelines from the federal government. Meanwhile, student rent, groceries and internet bills have to be paid.

A survey by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators found that nearly three-quarters of institutions had not paid out the CARES Act emergency grants by May. With little government guidance, colleges struggled to develop custom payout processes, said Justin Draeger, NASFAA president and CEO.

“These grants were approved in March and should go to the students quickly. Even the secretary [of education] himself urged the schools to get these funds out as soon as possible,” said Draeger. “The problem was that in mid-April, five weeks later, the department began introducing eligibility criteria for students, causing most schools to slam on the brakes.”

The new admission criteria have thrown a spanner in the works for the universities’ brand new payment processes. Some colleges have had to revise their plans to comply with the new guidance, Draeger said. Meanwhile, students, many of whom didn’t get their own stimulus checks because they were declared dependent on their parents’ tax forms, waited for emergency relief.

“By the time we arrived in May, the semester is ending, students were clearly already in a crisis and facing emergency spending, and by May most schools had not disbursed funds, largely because they were confused as to who was eligible and who was not. ‘ said Drager.

In recent weeks, colleges have made more CARES Act funds available to students. NASFAA requested institutions in June and found that 94 percent had paid out emergency grants to students. Of these institutions, more than half had spent 75 percent or more of the federal government’s funding on student grants.

Some colleges are embroiled in litigation over Department of Education eligibility requirements that bar undocumented students, international students and other students who are not normally eligible for federal financial assistance from receiving CARES Act emergency grants.

Wednesday District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rodgers granted a interim disposal in a case brought by California Community Colleges that allows colleges to allocate emergency funds at their discretion without regard to Department of Education requirements.

A federal judge issued a similar ruling in Washington, which will temporarily allow institutions there to provide emergency scholarships to experienced students on the GI bill, students with poor grades, those who have defaulted on loans, and other students who are otherwise ineligible for federal financial assistance . However, the verdict did not apply to undocumented students.

The Ministry of Education has already announced that it will appeal both verdicts.

Any notion that the guidance on how grants are paid out is unclear is “simply wrong,” a department spokesman said in an email.

“The Department has been clear and consistent since the passage of the CARES Act: Congress has tied this funding to Title IV eligibility,” the spokesman said. “We issued guidance very shortly after the passage of the CARES Act so schools could begin awarding emergency grants to students, as Congress intended. As the guidelines are not legally binding, we have also published an interim final rule which has the force of law. It’s important to note that there’s nothing stopping schools from awarding emergency scholarships to their undocumented students, they simply can’t use federal tax dollars to do so.

Some universities are also without legal uncertainty still hold on the CARES Act funding. Arizona State University received $63.5 million under the stimulus package — the largest allocation of any college in the country. Of that, $31.8 million must be spent on emergency student grants.

The university said it has not yet finalized a mechanism for disbursing the funds and will send out the grants in the summer and fall.

“Our goal with this funding is to primarily support students to continue their academic studies,” an ASU spokesman said in an email.

Draeger noted that the institutions would have quite a bit of time to disburse the funds.

“Congress and federal guidelines were pretty clear that schools should work to get the money out as soon as possible, although it was federal guidelines that caused significant delays,” he said. “However, the Department of Education’s Certification Agreement gave institutions one year to disburse those funds.”

Meanwhile, ASU has paid out $1 million in private grants to 1,400 students who “need immediate assistance,” the spokesman said. This corresponds to less than 2 percent of the student body.

When asked if all students who asked for financial aid had received money, the university spokesman said: “We are very aware of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis and have encouraged students to reach out for help if needed .”

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