The California Community Colleges are suing the U.S. Department of Education over eligibility requirements the federal agency placed on coronavirus emergency student aid last month.
The lawsuit was filed Monday in a San Francisco federal court and claimed the education department arbitrarily placed restrictions on the emergency coronavirus relief funds from Congress that had been intended to help students with any additional educational costs from the pandemic. Those restrictions prevented undocumented students and students in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA program, from receiving the aid in the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act.
“The Department of Education ignored the intent of the CARES Act to give local colleges discretion to aid students most affected by the pandemic, and instead has arbitrarily excluded as many as 800,000 community college students,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the 115-community college system. “Among those harmed are veterans, citizens who have not completed a federal financial aid application and noncitizens, including those with DACA status.”
The money was part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, of which $14 billion went to higher education. California colleges and universities expected to see more than $1.7 billion in aid, with at least half of that money going to emergency grants to students affected by the pandemic. Initially, Education Secretary Betsy Devos indicated the money could go to any student at the colleges’ discretion. But on April 21, DeVos published new guidance on how colleges and universities could spend that money. Only students who qualify for federal financial aid could be eligible for more than $6 billion in emergency stimulus aid and grants. Undocumented students and most international students, for example, can’t receive federal financial aid. And some students who don’t demonstrate they are successfully making academic progress also are excluded.
Angela Morabito, a spokeswoman for the education department, said Congress did not intend for the CARES Act to “create an entitlement for DACA recipients and others who are otherwise ineligible for federal public benefits.”
The stimulus law clearly ties eligibility for this funding to federal student aid eligibility, she said.
“Congress could have chosen to include DACA students and other foreign nationals in the legislation, or granted the Department the authority to send this money to noncitizens, but they did neither of those things,” Morabito said. “It is absurd that special interests want the department to fabricate a basis to send U.S. taxpayer money to noncitizens, especially given how many American students are in need of this emergency relief. States, colleges and universities have every right to help their DACA students financially, but they cannot use U.S. federal taxpayer dollars in order to do so.”
Besides the chancellor’s office, Foothill-De Anza, Los Rios, Los Angeles, the State Center and San Diego community college districts are listed as plaintiffs on the lawsuit. Together, they have been allocated about $114 million in stimulus aid, with at least $57 million for their students.
But much of that money hasn’t been able to reach students.
Foothill College, for example, was allocated about $2.4 million, with $1.2 million expected to go to students in emergency grants. The college, which is south of San Francisco, created a survey asking students to identify their needs, which 1,317 students did. Foothill intended to provide aid to all of those students, but once the education department imposed the eligibility restrictions, the college has only been able to provide assistance to 89 students, according to the complaint.
Most Foothill students who needed aid didn’t qualify because they had not filed a federal student aid application, or because they were enrolled in online classes. Congress in the stimulus law excluded students who had mostly taken online courses before the pandemic, because those students were less likely to have expenses related to the disruption of campus operations.
The four community colleges in the Los Rios Community College District, which is in the Sacramento area, estimated they could provide financial support to about 58,000 students through the emergency aid. Those students included DACA recipients, foster youth, single parents, veterans and undocumented students. But under the education department’s restrictions, only 21,000 students qualified for the aid.
Although the lawsuit involves the community colleges, tens of thousands of students across the state in the University of California, California State University and private college systems are affected by the eligibility requirements. There are an estimated 4,000 undocumented students enrolled in the 10-campus UC system, about 9,5000 at CSU’s 23 campuses and 70,000 in the community colleges. Nearly half of those students are estimated to have DACA status. Nationally, it’s estimated that more than 450,000 undocumented students are enrolled in college.
The colleges have instead been diverting money and resources from other funds to help these students excluded from the stimulus law.
“(The colleges) are also facing an overall decrease in funding due to the necessity to redirect aid to students unlawfully deemed ineligible for (stimulus law) assistance, and an increase in costs due to demand for services needed by current students,” according to the complaint.