All students, including those who have not previously formally applied for federal aid, are now eligible for aid, according to the Department of Education.
The move represents a break from the Donald Trump administration’s decision to bar such students, even among those known federally protected as “Dreamers,” from accessing previous rounds of funding, The New York Times reported.
“The pandemic did not discriminate against students,” Miguel Cardona, the education secretary, told reporters during a phone call Monday that previewed the administration’s plans. “We know that the final rule will include all students, and we want to make sure that all students have the opportunity to have access to funds to help them get back on track.”
The decision is a 180-degree turn from attempts by Trump administration officials to prevent most immigrant students from accessing such aid. Last June, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education, issued an emergency rule barring international and undocumented students, including tens of thousands of so-called “Dreamers” protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, from accessing an earlier round of more than $6 billion in emergency aid funds, a decision that quickly faced legal challenges.
For months, Biden administration officials considered extending emergency benefits to undocumented students, who are not eligible for other forms of student aid.
Under existing welfare laws, undocumented immigrants remain largely ineligible for money from federal programs, including funds provided by the $1.9 billion pandemic relief package that President Biden signed last March.
Last night, an Education Department spokeswoman, who was not authorized to publicly detail the planning, said the government had the authority to distribute funds to undocumented students through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund established as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that former President Trump signed in March 2020, and that Congress “did not draw clear lines around who is a student” in determining who could receive money from that fund.
Existing eligibility requirements for the fund “make clear that emergency financial aid can support all students who are or were enrolled at an institution of higher education during the pandemic national emergency, and it is up to the institution to distribute the funds to students most in need,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.
Secretary Cardona framed the measure as a matter of convenience: “What it really does is simplify the definition of ‘student’. It makes it easier for colleges to administer the program and get the money in the hands of students sooner.”
About half of the $36 billion for colleges will go directly to students, Cardona said, and about $10 billion will be distributed to community colleges.
In addition to direct grants to individual students, the funds are expected to be used to bolster academic support services, purchase laptop computers and expand mental health programs.