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Cardona opens emergency grants to undocumented and international college students

Education secretary lifts controversial ban on pandemic relief grants imposed by his predecessor, Betsy DeVos

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona delivers remarks in a Friday video address to graduating University of Connecticut students at Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford, Conn. (Peter Morenus/University of Connecticut/AP)

Undocumented and international college students will now be eligible to receive pandemic relief grants after Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Tuesday lifted a controversial ban imposed by his predecessor, Betsy DeVos.

“The pandemic didn’t discriminate … and we want to make sure that all students have an opportunity to have access to funds to help them get back on track,” Cardona told reporters on a call Monday.

The Biden administration issued a final rule Tuesday revising a Trump-era policy that narrowed student eligibility for emergency grant aid provided through the stimulus packages. Congress has earmarked $35 billion in emergency aid since last spring for students facing housing, employment and food insecurities, but left it to the Education Department to flesh out the terms.

Washington pumped $35 billion into emergency grants for college students. Here’s how it’s going.

After confusing and conflicting guidance, DeVos issued a rule in June asserting that only those who can participate in federal student aid programs can receive money. It shut out undocumented and international students as well as those with defaulted student loans or minor drug convictions.

Although the Education Department later backed off on applying the rule to students in the latter two groups, it still viewed undocumented and international students as ineligible. The Trump administration said a 1996 welfare reform law bars those groups from receiving public aid.

Higher-education leaders and advocacy groups argued that the broad language of the stimulus legislation 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.

The Biden administration agrees.

The Education Department said the final rule better reflects the intent of Congress and makes clear that emergency aid can support all students who are or were enrolled in college during the pandemic. The rule applies to all three rounds of stimulus funding, according to the department.

“What this does is really simplify the definition of a student,” Cardona said. “It makes it easier for colleges to administer the program and get the money in the hands of students sooner.”

Congressional Democrats had blasted DeVos for excluding scores of students when there was nothing explicit in the legislation about which ones are eligible for help.

By using federal aid eligibility as a measure, they said DeVos placed colleges in the position of needing to look at federal aid applications to distribute grants without running afoul of the department. At last count, 7.5 million undergraduate and graduate students did not apply for federal aid, including many who would qualify if they did.

“Every student struggling because of this pandemic deserves access to emergency aid that can make all the difference,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. “After so many months of pushing back against the previous administration, I’m so relieved that Secretary Cardona took this important step.”

Not everyone praised Cardona’s revision of the Trump-era rule.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), the top Republican on the House Education Committee, called the move “an insult to every American.”

“President Biden is fueling an immigration crisis, and this final rule exacerbates the emergency at the southern border,” Foxx said in a statement Tuesday. “I call on elected Democrats to stop swindling law-abiding citizens, put Americans first, and respect the sacrifice of hardworking taxpayers.”

Many colleges and universities have been using their own institutional funds to lend a hand to undocumented and international students, but they have said the demand outpaces the supply.

Hundreds of schools urged the department to reverse course in public comments on the DeVos rule. Of the 4,149 comments the federal agency received, fewer than 10 percent supported the former secretary’s position, according to the department.

“Denying emergency grants to DACA and undocumented students wasn’t just legally questionable, it was a moral failing, and I’m relieved to see this finally corrected,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

The Trump-era policy was challenged in a series of lawsuits, including one brought by California Community Colleges that resulted in the courts imposing a preliminary injunction. The judge, in that case, ruled that the emergency grants did not fit the description of a public benefit as defined by the welfare law. The case is ongoing, but a spokesman for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office said the Education Department had discussed its intent to revise the rule at the heart of the lawsuit.

Cardona discussed expanding student eligibility during a call about the release of the third installment of stimulus funding for colleges and universities, roughly $36 billion. Altogether, the federal government has provided a total of $76 billion to support higher education and college students during the pandemic.