The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox

Choose from our newsletters

In March, Congress rushed to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, in part to keep college students enrolled and on track to complete their degrees.

Lawmakers wisely included an investment of more than $6 billion in emergency aid, and issued few requirements so that colleges and universities could get money to students quickly and flexibly. But earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance, rendering more than 1.5 million college students in the United States ineligible for support.

The guidance, and the subsequent series of amendments the Department of Education has issued, is leading higher-education institutions to restrict those critical dollars only to students who can complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is despite evidence that the students who need the most help often cannot complete the FAFSA.

What is Coronavirus doing to our schools?

We've got the latest and deepest takes.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos has, in the midst of a pandemic, issued guidance that divides college students into “haves” and “have-nots.” After all, this is the same Secretary of Education who proposed a cut in funding for rural schools and a decimation of Title IX protections, and who also supported a $7.1 billion cut from her department for the 2020 fiscal year — a 10 percent reduction from 2019.

Related: OPINION: Coronavirus crisis spotlights the inequities in college financial aid

DeVos’ approach has been short-sighted, inequitable and xenophobic. Both the chancellor of California Community Colleges and the Washington State Attorney General have filed suit in federal court over it. In a recent 16-page report, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said, “a court would probably not defer to ED’s interpretation of Title IV and the CARES Act.” But in the meantime, students wait — and suffer. As the case moves through the legal process, it’s up to states and private philanthropy to support all college students.

I’ve spent 20 years studying the many gaps in the Title IV eligibility process, which begins with the FAFSA. The research is clear: While using the FAFSA helps administrators identify students with financial need, it does so quite imperfectly. Many families are asset-limited, income-constrained and employed (ALICE), yet they are often ineligible for grants using the current needs analysis. Moreover, the FAFSA is lengthy, complex and exclusionary.

DREAMers, LGBTQ students, former foster youth and justice-impacted students are some of the hardest hit undergraduates in the Covid-19 pandemic. Applicants who are estranged from their families have difficulty completing the FAFSA and/or establishing their independence for financial-aid purposes.

DREAMers, although legally enrolled under the DACA program, are barred from receiving federal financial support. While efforts in some states to make filling out the FAFSA mandatory for high school graduation are well-intentioned, the unintended consequences for these particularly vulnerable (and fast-growing) populations are rarely examined.

Related: OPINION: Do U.S. colleges reinforce or reduce inequality?

Not only was the Department of Education’s move exclusionary, it wasted precious time and money. As soon as the CARES Act passed, colleges began to put processes in place to distribute the emergency aid quickly. The Department of Education issued guidance that they followed. But two weeks later, DeVos made an about-face, imposing the new restrictions.

Some might argue that there are ways outside of submitting the FAFSA that can prove a student’s Title IV eligibility. Although there’s some truth to that, the Department of Education’s shifting guidance put colleges and universities in a severe time-crunch to support their students, and on top of now having to adjust plans as a result of this new guidance, they are frequently — and rightfully —relying on the quickest way to determine Title IV eligibility: submission of the FAFSA.

This cruel, unnecessary administrative burden is nothing short of governmental overreach. The legislative intent was clear that emergency aid is for any student affected by the pandemic. But with Congress checked out and state budgets plummeting into the negatives, our students cannot afford to wait for better, student-centered government policies. They need help. Now.

The coronavirus may not discriminate in who it infects or affects, but our societal structures certainly do. And while higher education, nonprofits and our government are often too slow to innovate, we have an opportunity right now to rebuild our systems, including our higher-education structure. That’s why it is up to us, as private citizens, to step in.

A new emergency aid initiative is now doing just that: beginning to fill the major gap created by the Department of Education  by providing an additional funding stream that institutions can use to provide all students with emergency aid through a central, consistent application, all while providing seamless support to make administration easy.

Applicants will not be stigmatized or targeted based on their status; instead, they’ll be given the necessary support to stay in school and complete their degrees. If the Department of Education is going to include non-Title IV-eligible students in its calculation used to distribute dollars to colleges and universities, the least we can do is support these students.

Even so, we have to face facts: The ultimate responsibility lies with Congress to ensure that future funds can go to students regardless of whether they can complete the FAFSA. Our economy depends on all of them getting the education they need to succeed. There is simply no philanthropic substitute for good public policy. Today’s college students will be the country’s frontline workers of tomorrow. In fact, many of them are already the frontline workers of today.

This story about emergency aid to LGBTQ students and DREAMers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, Chief Strategy Officer for Emergency Aid at Edquity and a board member of Believe in Students.

Want to write your own Op-Ed?

We consider all submissions under 900 words.

Read our guidelines here.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *