Who Is Eligible For The Emergency Financial Aid Grant From the Department of Education?

Students struggling due to the COVID-19 crisis are being helped by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act)—but restrictions on who is eligible have caused controversy.

The CARES Act saw Congress authorize $14 billion in funding for U.S. colleges and universities through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HERF) and institutions must spend at least half of that on financial aid grants to students to cover living expenses such as housing, health care and food.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance on the financial aid package, outlining that only federal students who can participate in federal student aid programs can get the money.

"Dreamers", or those who came to the U.S. illegally as children under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program would not be eligible, an exclusion which has been criticized by many, such as California Sen. Kamala Harris, who called it "downright cruel."

Others have criticized the restriction but the Department of Education insists that it is following the letter of the law. Spokesperson Angela Morabito told Newsweek in a statement: "The CARES Act makes clear that this taxpayer funded relief fund should be targeted to U.S. citizens, which is consistently echoed throughout the law." Here are some of the other main points of the emergency financial aid grant.

How much money has been granted?

Some $6.28 billion in emergency aid has been granted for students as part of the first tranche of the $31 billion in education aid announced by the government.

The Department of Education has said that only $6 million has reached campuses so far and that out of the 5,000 colleges eligible for the program, only a little over a quarter had submitted the requisite paperwork as of last week, Politico reported.

Education groups have complained of a lack of clarity on the rules and guidance from the government saying that even colleges which had applied for assistance had not yet received any money.

But Morabito has dismissed this, saying, according to Politico: "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."

Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, told Politico that the department was wrong to suggest that schools did not want the funds when it has not been clarified what the rules are for spending it.

"If there is a problem, it is that the department is still figuring out how to implement the law," Hartle said.

Students walk through Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University on March 12, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Emergency funding has been set aside for students struggling due to the coronavirus crisis. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Which students are eligible to receive financial help?

Students eligible for the emergency funds must be a citizen or an eligible noncitizen. They will need records such as a Social Security number, a selective service registration, and a high-school diploma. Students who have filed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will have already demonstrated their eligibility.

However if a student has not yet filed a FAFSA, they may find it hard if not impossible to apply for aid, according to Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

"The lengths the department will go through to exclude DACA students will hurt all sorts of students. In all practical purposes, I don't know how an institution would document those things without a FAFSA," he said, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Students enrolled in exclusively online-only programs on March 13, 2020 when the national emergency was declared would not be eligible, because the funds are aimed at those who attend college campuses. International students on student visas also do not qualify.

What should students do if they find they are not eligible?

Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, has warned that the new requirements will force some students to drop out but advised those who find themselves ineligible to take it up with their elected officials and not the colleges.

"They need to understand that this action made it harder for their colleges to get them the money—badgering the institution will not make the money come faster," she told Newsweek.

"Rather, they should keep a vigilant eye on their institution's website and emails from the school for information about how to apply for emergency aid. I know institutions will inform students just as soon as the money becomes available," she added, although there is no set time frame on how long this would be.

She said that those who have not filed a FAFSA yet and are able to, should do so immediately as having it will speed up the process for applying for funds, a process which varies from college to college.

"If you have not filed the FAFSA and you cannot, still watch the institution's website as they may find ways to use other non-federal dollars to provide support."

Newsweek has contacted the Department of Education for further comment.

The infographic below, provided by Statista, shows the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases across the U.S. as of April 24.

Coronavirus US Map Cases Statista