California Community Colleges Sue Betsy DeVos

The entrance to California Community Colleges headquarters in Sacramento.

(CN) — U.S. Department of Education restrictions on community college pandemic aid violate the Constitution and would block help to more than half of California’s 1.5 million students, including many who need assistance the most, several community college districts said in a federal lawsuit Monday.

In the CARES Act, the $1.8 trillion Covid-19 relief package passed in March, Congress set aside a $12.6 billion Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund for community colleges across the nation. With $580 million for California’s 73 districts, according to the complaint, the bill largely leaves disbursal of the funds up to the schools.

That is, it did until Education Secretary Betsy DeVos added a requirement that the money go only to students who are eligible for financial aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act — a restriction that lead plaintiff Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor of California community colleges, says Congress never included or intended. Title IV regulates financial aid.

“There is no provision of the CARES Act that imposes eligibility requirements on the students who may receive HEERF [Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund] Assistance. … Moreover, Congress did explicitly limit eligibility for other forms of assistance in the CARES Act, while not doing the same for HEERF Assistance,” according to the 37-page complaint filed in the Northern District of California.

Oakley is joined as a plaintiff by the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges and five community college districts: Foothill-De Anza, Los Rios, Los Angeles, State Center, and San Diego.

At first the Department of Education agreed the schools could decide who gets the funds, then later told applicants the aid would be limited to Title IV-eligible students, which excludes undocumented residents covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, temporary protected status recipients, and asylum applicants, the plaintiffs say.

The department announced the funding on April 9, and that day DeVos sent a letter to college administrators telling them that “each institution may develop its own system and process for determining how to allocate these funds, which may include distributing the funds to all students or only to students who demonstrate significant need,” the lawsuit state.

A certification packet for the funds states that the money is not considered financial aid under Title IV, the plaintiffs say.

But on April 21, the Department told colleges that only students eligible for Title IV financial aid can get relief. That communication specifically limits the aid to U.S. citizens and “eligible noncitizens,” the plaintiffs said.

The Title IV requirement also blocks students who are dually enrolled in college and high school, struggling academically, in default on a student loan, or not enrolled for credit, the lawsuit states.

Taken together, the limits would exclude more than 800,000 of California’s 1.5 million community college students, including 150,000 low-income students, 26,000 with disabilities, and more than 12,000 veterans. Keeping the Title IV requirement would risk disenrollment for 100,000 future health care workers and 80,000 future first responders, the plaintiffs say.

They ask the court to declare the department’s eligibility restrictions illegal and permanently block the department from using the Title IV requirement or punishing states that give aid to non-Title IV students.

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