Florida universities get millions they can’t share with DACA students

The University of Central Florida, the state's largest recipient of COVID-related financial aid at $51 million. Source: Wikimedia Commons

WASHINGTON — Florida colleges and universities will receive nearly $740 million in emergency federal aid for COVID-19, but some of the state’s most vulnerable students won’t be eligible for assistance.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said the emergency grants — part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief act that Congress approved last month — can’t go to undocumented students, even those who pay taxes or are under federal protection.

Some Democrats have pushed back against that decision, saying DeVos overstepped her authority by excluding them. The controversy over who should receive the education stimulus is now playing out in college financial aid offices, as universities try to figure out how to dole out the financial stimulus money in the face of mounting requests.

Congress approved nearly $12 billion in aid for colleges and universities across the country as part of the economic rescue bill known as the CARES Act. Half of that is for colleges to use for direct emergency cash grants to students.

In total, Florida colleges and universities will get nearly $740 million and about $370 million of that will go directly to students, according to an analysis of Education Department data by the Center for American Progress. The emergency grants can help students who may have lost work or housing, or need help to get set up for distance learning.

But when the Education Department set its rules for how colleges could dole out the funds, DeVos said students must be eligible for federal financial aid funds. This blocked undocumented students, including those brought to the United States illegally as children. Those students, the so-called “Dreamers,” are shielded from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).

The Trump administration has moved to rescind the DACA program, but that effort has been tied up in court. The Supreme Court is weighing the fate of the program and is expected to issue an opinion in the coming weeks.

Florida has about 42,000 undocumented students in postsecondary education, third-highest in the nation, according to a recent study from the New America Economy. The state has about 16,000 DACA students.

The COVID-19 aid requirements also create barriers for other students who do not qualify for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid,” including those who have minor drug convictions, have defaulted on student loans, or have not registered with the Selective Service.

“The lengths this administration goes through to exclude DACA students ends up hurting a lot more [people],” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Lawmakers push back 

Many Democrats have pushed DeVos to change the requirements.

Eight Florida lawmakers told DeVos the guidance was “extremely problematic.” Reps. Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto, Val Demings, Alcee Hastings, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Debbbie Mucarsel-Powell, and Donna Shalala — along with 64 other House Democrats — signed a letter criticizing DeVos’s guidance.

“We request that you immediately help students most in need during these unprecedented and challenging times and ensure emergency financial aid grants are fully distributed in an efficient manner,” the lawmakers wrote. “Additionally, we request you change your guidance to allow all students access to this vital aid.”

And a group of 28 Senate Democrats asked DeVos to reverse her decision and allow DACA students to receive funding.

DeVos maintains she had little choice.

“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,” Education Department press secretary Angela Morabito said.

But Democrats who helped write the law have said they did not mean for the funding to be restricted. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrats on the subcommittees that oversee Education Department appropriations, also asked DeVos to reverse the rule.

“We are deeply disappointed with your unauthorized decision to restrict eligibility for emergency financial aid to students during this difficult time for our country and in violation of congressional intent,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to DeVos on May 1.

‘We pivoted quickly’

In the midst of the dispute, college financial aid offices are shifting plans to try to get money to needy students.

At St. Petersburg College, the financial assistance office had been preparing to make the application for emergency grants available to every student, but had to change course after DeVos issued her guidance.

“We pivoted quickly,” said Wayne Kruger, executive director of financial assistance operations for St. Petersburg College. Kruger spoke about the change of plans on a podcast this week with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“If future guidance comes out, we will pivot again and make changes as we see fit,” Kruger told the “Off the Cuff” podcast.

St. Petersburg College received just over $6 million for student grants and has already distributed about half of it, according to Kruger. The college has also used some money from its foundation to help students who do not qualify for the federal aid.

Their funding total is relatively small compared to other Florida universities. The biggest recipient was University of Central Florida, which received $51 million — the fourth-largest allocation in the nation. Just over $25 million of that sum can go to student grants.

Students have already filed about 27,000 applications for funding, and school officials expect to see more in the next two weeks, according to Mark Schlueb, director of strategic communications for UCF. Schlueb said the school is also working to raise extra money from donors to help needy students who don’t qualify for the grants.

Colleges receive funding based on the number of full-time, in-person students receiving federal grants. UCF is one of the largest public universities, with 66,481 students this semester.

But the funding formula also means schools with undocumented students qualify for more money based on their enrollment — even though the school can’t use the money to help those students. In total, undocumented students enrolled in Florida colleges may have generated $12.3 million in stimulus funding for the schools, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress.

“These students are helping to generate and drive dollars to their colleges, but they won’t receive stimulus funds because of the very unnecessary decision that the Education Department has made,” said Viviann Anguiano, associate director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.

“Some of these families are in desperate need of support, and it is likely that students who are in need of the dollars most won’t be receiving them.”

Miami Dade College received the second-highest amount in Florida, just over $49 million, according to the allocations set by the Department of Education.

The state’s other major universities got significantly less: Florida State received just over $29 million, Florida Atlantic received $22 million, and University of Florida received $31 million.

Small schools with more part-time students received smaller amounts. Gadsden Technical Institute got just over $41,000 and the Merryfield School of Pet Grooming got $37,00

The next step?

Education advocacy groups asked lawmakers this week for more money for K-12 and higher education in the next COVID-19 relief bill. The groups asked for $50 billion for higher education to help bridge the gap of lost income for colleges and support students in need.

More than 70 groups — including the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, National Urban League, and the NAACP — signed the letter to House and Senate leadership.

The groups asked Congress to include language “explicitly stating” that no one otherwise eligible would be excluded because of immigration status or other non-merit factors.

A group of House Democrats introduced a “Coronavirus Immigrant Families Protection Act” last month that would direct economic support to immigrant families through testing, health care, and economic support. The bill has 65 cosponsors in the House, including three Florida Democrats: Soto, Wilson, and Shalala.

Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) introduced similar legislation this week in the Senate. The legislation is unlikely to advance in the Republican-controlled Senate, but plants a flag for the issue as lawmakers debate future relief bills.

Health- and human rights advocacy groups have pressed congressional leadership to work on legislation to support immigrant families. The Florida Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics Inc. and Florida Health Justice Project were among 550 groups that signed a recent letter on the issue.