State sues Trump over college students’ coronavirus aid

AG Ferguson says over 85,000 students who desperately need financial assistance have been excluded.

By Kip Hill / The Spokesman-Review

The state of Washington sued the Department of Education on Tuesday, adding to a string of lawsuits alleging the Trump administration is ignoring the will of Congress in limiting relief to some college students affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Late Thursday, the Education Department released an updated statement saying its guidance to schools about who was eligible for assistance was not intended to carry the force of law.

That guidance became the source of the lawsuit pending in Eastern Washington, and it’s unclear if the latest position from the Trump administration would affect the legal action.

The federal lawsuit, filed in Spokane, names Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and argues her agency’s guidance on awarding billions of dollars in federal assistance to students is in violation of the law. The guidance defines the money awarded under a $2 trillion assistance package passed by Congress in March as federal aid, and thus limits who can receive the money for housing, textbooks and other costs of continuing instruction during the pandemic.

“As a result of the Department’s unauthorized eligibility restriction, over 85,000 Washington higher education students who desperately need financial assistance have been excluded from federal help,” the Washington Attorney General’s Office wrote in its lawsuit.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office said in a statement that the requirements mandated by the Education Department would limit assistance to vulnerable groups, including students who are studying in Washington as members of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, or DREAMers, noncitizens who arrived in the country as children of migrant parents.

The exclusion also makes it more difficult for colleges to determine eligibility for students who don’t file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form. Washington ranks 49th out of 50 states for students filling out the form seeking financial assistance, with less than half of annual graduates filing a FAFSA, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council. Those may be students who are receiving financial assistance through the GI Bill after serving in the military, those whose family incomes put them just above the threshold to receive federal Pell Grants and others.

“The pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption for all of Washington’s students without regard for the arbitrary, harmful lines the Department of Education has drawn,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a joint news release with Ferguson announcing the lawsuit.

The Education Department had previously said it’s bound by a different federal law to determine whether a student is eligible to receive assistance under the program, and has asked universities and colleges to ensure those applying are eligible in order to avoid penalties. Those requirements include receiving a high school diploma or GED, maintaining a C average in courses and taking at least half the full-time workload.

The lawsuit filed in Washington, and a similar one filed last week by the Community Colleges of California, alleges that Congress intended to allow the assistance to go beyond students who receive other types of financial aid. The restriction by the Education Department in releasing funds is a decision only Congress, not the White House, can make, the lawsuits allege.

The Education Department, in its statement Thursday night, appeared to concede this point.

“The Department will not initiate any enforcement action based solely on these statements because they lack the force and effect of law,” the statement reads, adding that the administration would “take further action shortly.”

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, an organization representing financial aid workers at nearly 3,000 American colleges, called the statement “an about-face” that appeared to continue to limit assistance for DACA recipients.

Local schools followed the federal guidance in providing applications for assistance under the federal program. Washington State University received $10.9 million in federal assistance intended for students, and has allocated a little more than half of that to more than 7,000 students, according to a post on its website. The university advises students that only those who have filed FAFSA forms should apply for assistance.

“Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education does not allow CARES Act funds to be awarded to international students, undocumented students, non-matriculated students, or students enrolled at WSU Global,” the university wrote.

Phil Weiler, vice president for marketing and communications for the university, said Thursday that eligible students could apply for between $500 and $1,500 of assistance under the program.

An additional, nonfederally funded account was established to aid noneligible students, including students who attend classes online and several hundred undocumented students, Weiler said. That account totals about a half-million dollars.

None of the state’s colleges or universities is party to the Washington lawsuit.

Ferguson has sought a preliminary injunction allowing universities to make their own determinations about who can receive aid. A hearing on that decision is scheduled before Eastern Washington Chief Judge Thomas O. Rice on June 11.

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