Colleges, students will have easier access to second round of stimulus funds, but bureaucracy remains


Colleges and universities that received federal stimulus dollars last year will have an easier time accessing the second round of relief, but higher education experts say it will still take work to get money into the hands of students.

On Thursday, the Education Department made $21.2 billion from the latest stimulus package available to institutions of higher education to support students and school operations. The federal agency said it will soon release a separate pot of money for historically Black schools, minority-serving institutions and other hard-hit schools.

“The Department is working quickly, yet again, to ensure taxpayer-funded COVID relief allocated by Congress gets to those who need it most,” acting education secretary Mitchell Zais said in a statement. “I would encourage leaders of our higher education institutions to use this funding … to support students who are struggling financially in the wake of this pandemic and to build IT and distance learning capacity.”

The money is being provided as supplemental funds to grants created by Congress last spring. That eliminates the need for schools that benefited from the first round of relief to apply for the new aid, said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

But he said institutions will still need to complete a few steps before money is transferred to their accounts.

“Schools will need time to understand ED’s new guidance, complete the paperwork, formulate allocation models and get money out the door,” Draeger said. “We know students and families continue to experience real harm from the pandemic, and schools will be working overtime to get money to students as soon as is practicable.”

Colleges must spend at least the same amount on emergency student aid as they did with funds allocated from the Cares Act that Congress passed in March. A larger pool of students should qualify for the money this time because the department has backed off previous guidance that limited money to those who are eligible to receive federal student aid. That means students who defaulted on a federal loan or with minor drug convictions can now receive support.

However, Diane Auer Jones, the Education Department’s point person on higher education policy, told several higher education groups on Monday that the agency still views undocumented and international students as ineligible for aid.

The Education Department did not immediately respond to requests for further information but has previously said that a 1996 welfare-reform law bars those groups from receive public aid.

Luis Maldonado, vice president for government relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said the organization is “disheartened” by the department’s continued exclusion of undocumented students.

Maldonado and other higher education experts said they are pleased that the department is releasing the funding and guidance at the same time, a departure from the prior distribution of stimulus funds. Colleges and universities were stymied by bureaucracy and the lack of clear rules from the agency in the spring.

The earlier process was "was delayed, confusing and frustrating to many institutions and their students,” Maldonado said.

The latest round of stimulus funding is largely divvied up as before, but with a few important changes. Chief among them is a revised formula that gives more consideration to an institution’s total number of students, instead of focusing on those attending full time. That distinction will deliver more money to community colleges, which have a high number of part-time students. Those students should also receive greater support.

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