Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued the restriction in new guidelines released Tuesday telling colleges how to distribute more than $6 billion in grants meant to help students cover unexpected costs triggered by the pandemic.
Earlier guidance from the Education Department suggested universities would have wide flexibility in distributing the grants, but the new guidelines said that only students who qualify for other federal student aid can receive the aid.
More than 400,000 students are estimated to have entered the U.S. illegally. More than 1 million international students are enrolled at US colleges.
University leaders and immigration groups blasted the change, saying DeVos is imposing new limits that were not included in Congress’ legislation.
The rescue package did not specify which students are eligible for grants, and many colleges had planned to distribute emergency grants to needy students regardless of their citizenship status.
Some prestigious universities cited the new policy in decisions to reject the funding. Princeton University announced Wednesday that it would refuse its $2.4 million share of coronavirus relief over the policy. Harvard University also cited the change in its decision to reject $8.7 million in aid.
The Education Department said its guidance is aligned with other federal laws. The agency cited the Higher Education Act, a sweeping law that says only U.S. citizens and a narrow set of “eligible noncitizens" are eligible for federal student aid. Angela Morabito, a department spokeswoman, said the rescue package legislation “makes clear that this taxpayer funded relief fund should be targeted to U.S. citizens, which is consistently echoed throughout the law."
But some higher education advocates challenged that claim. The American Council on Education, an association of college presidents, said the rescue package placed no limits on student eligibility.
“The statute says almost nothing about who is eligible to receive a grant. The Department of Education owns this decision. Period,” said Terry Hartle, the group's senior vice president. He added that the group is disappointed by DeVos' policy. "We strongly believed many of these students needed help.”
The guidelines have created confusion about exactly which students can receive the grants, Hartle said. It’s clear that the department is excluding immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally and international students, he said, but it’s unclear how schools should determine eligibility. Most colleges don’t ask students if they’re U.S. citizens, he said, and officials have no easy way to check.
“A college could give an emergency grant to a Dreamer without realizing the person is a Dreamer,” he said, referring to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally but allowed to stay under the under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
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