The Biden administration is reversing a Trump-era policy that barred undocumented college students and others from receiving federal relief grants meant to help pay for expenses like food, housing, and child care during the coronavirus pandemic.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Tuesday finalized a new regulation that allows colleges to distribute tens of billions in federal pandemic relief grants to all students, regardless of their immigration status or whether they qualify for federal student aid.
“The pandemic didn’t discriminate which students got Covid, so the final rule does allow for all students” to access the funding, Cardona told reporters. The goal, he said, was to “make sure that all students have an opportunity to have access to the funds to help them get back on track.”
The policy change was unveiled on Tuesday as the Education Department announced it would begin distributing $36 billion in federal relief funding for higher education, part of the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package that President Joe Biden signed in March. Colleges and universities will each receive an allocation of the funding under a formula spelled out in that law, based in part on the share of Pell grant recipients enrolled at each school.
Colleges must pass along roughly half of their Covid relief dollars directly to students in the form of emergency financial aid cash grants. But unlike with previous rounds of Covid relief funding, colleges will now be free to provide that money to any of their students.
The final regulation, set to be released Tuesday by the Education Department, replaces a policy that then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos enacted through an interim regulation last year.
The DeVos rule said that colleges could provide federal Covid relief funding only to students who qualify for federal financial aid. That definition inherently excluded undocumented students and international students studying in the U.S., as well as some U.S. citizens who do not qualify for federal financial aid for various unrelated reasons — for example, because they have a defaulted student loan or a drug conviction.
Three federal judges in different parts of the country last year struck down DeVos’ restrictions on the funding, which congressional Democrats also derided as illegal. But the court rulings applied only to colleges in Massachusetts and Washington state, as well as community colleges in California.
Colleges and universities were largely opposed to the Trump-era restrictions, and some higher education groups said the complicated criteria and changing guidance from the Education Department slowed down school officials' ability to distribute the money to students.
The new regulation out Tuesday makes all students eligible, meaning it will be “easier for colleges to administer the program and get money in the hands of students sooner,” Cardona told reporters.
It will be up to colleges and universities to decide how to distribute the funding to their students, though the law requires that schools prioritize students who have exceptional financial needs.
Education Department officials on Tuesday also released new guidance that expands how colleges are allowed to spend each institution's share of its federal Covid relief funds.
Schools were already allowed to use the funding to defray a wide range of expenses related to the pandemic, such as technology upgrades, lost revenue and the purchase of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. And the Biden administration previously said that colleges could use the funds to wipe out student debt owed directly to the college.
The Biden administration’s new guidance allows colleges to use funding to boost efforts to vaccinate students on their campus against Covid, including by setting up new vaccination sites and by paying for efforts to “spread awareness and build confidence in getting vaccinated." Colleges can also use the funding to provide paid time off for staff to get vaccinated.
In addition, the Biden administration said that schools must use a portion of their federal funds to tell financial aid applicants that they may be eligible to have their financial aid award adjusted if they or a family member becomes unemployed.
Michelle Asha Cooper, acting assistant secretary of postsecondary education, said on a call with reporters that colleges do face some restrictions in how they use the money — such as not spending federal dollars on marketing, recruitment or advertising.
"It is really designed primarily to support institutions and their students, and efforts to retain those students and support them as they move through the pandemic, and to reengage students to help them stay connected to the campus community," she said.
The tranche of Covid relief for colleges and universities Biden signed into law is the largest yet, more than double the amount of money for colleges provided by the previous two federal Covid relief laws combined.
The Education Department said that the latest round of funding being released on Tuesday includes $10 billion to support community colleges, more than $2.6 billion for historically Black colleges and universities and $190 million for tribal colleges. Nearly $6 billion is for other types of minority-serving institutions, including those serving large populations of Hispanic students and Native American and Pacific Islander students, the department said.
For-profit colleges are also set to receive roughly $400 million in aid, though they must use the funding exclusively to provide grants to students.