“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,” said Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the Education Department.
Higher-education leaders bristled at the department’s assertion that colleges and universities are at fault. Several say schools that have applied for the aid are still waiting for the money.
“It’s really wrong for the Department to suggest that the 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 schools what the rules are for spending it,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education, a higher-education group.
There were glitches with the process in the early days of the rollout. The website where colleges had to submit documents was down for hours at a time, and some schools that had never used the portal had trouble registering.
“There was initial confusion about what the right code for the grant was, questions about the form,” said Luis Maldonado, vice president for government relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “And, of course, the biggest concern we’re hearing is how should the funding be directed.”
DeVos gave schools tremendous discretion in awarding grants, but there remain legal questions about the tax implications for students and exactly who can receive the money.
On Thursday, the National Association of College and University Business Officers and other higher-education groups wrote Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asking him to clarify whether grant recipients would owe taxes on the money they receive. Many of the same groups that signed onto the letter have also pressed the Education Department for specifics on the legal parameters of the grant aid.
Advocacy groups had hoped the broad language of the Cares Act provision left open a window for colleges to help undocumented students receiving immigration benefits under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program for immigrants brought to the United States as children. A 1996 welfare-reform law bars such students from getting federal assistance, but advocates said the provision in the stimulus law could trump the prohibition.
Colleges are skeptical about that interpretation and are seeking a definitive answer from the Education Department. The agency has yet to provide one.
“People want to be good stewards of the money,” said Barbara K. Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents private schools. “There are a million questions and no answers.”
Mistick said colleges are definitely interested in the money. Her association recently held a webinar on the grant aid and had over 1,000 attendees with a one-day notice. She said participants had questions about the eligibility of DACA and international students, as well as reporting requirements. Mistick hopes the Education Department develops a Frequently Asked Questions document to clear up the confusion.
In many ways, Mistick and others say it is wonderful that colleges have so much leeway. Each institution can develop its own system and process for determining how to disburse the money. The only requirement is that the funds be used to cover expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to the coronavirus. But schools worry that if the money is misused, students or the institution could pay the price.
Maldonado said he understands the Education Department is trying to move a great deal of money quickly, including the remaining funds to stabilize colleges, but it would have been useful to receive guidelines when the grant aid was made available.
“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,” Morabito said.