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Foothill-De Anza joins lawsuit against U.S. Department of Education over COVID aid

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Courtesy of Foothill College
Foothill College’s food pantry is located in the school’s Campus Center, above. The pantry is currently closed and students are instead receiving electronic gift cards to buy food. Chancellor Judy Miner said the pandemic has exacerbated the problem of student hunger.

The Foothill-De Anza Community College District has joined a federal lawsuit against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, alleging that she is illegally restricting which students can obtain coronavirus relief funding.

To receive federal emergency funds, the U.S. Department of Education has said college students must be eligible for federal financial aid. That excludes undocumented students, among other groups.

“As a result, many students who may be most in need of relief will be deprived of assistance during this public health crisis,” the lawsuit reads.

The community colleges are arguing that DeVos overstepped her authority in issuing the restrictions, going beyond the text of the law Congress passed. The suit is being led by the chancellor of California Community Colleges.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for the federal education department asserted that “the CARES Act explicitly ties funding eligibility to Title IV of the Higher Education Act.”

The CARES Act is an over $2 trillion relief bill Congress passed to help address the pandemic’s economic fallout. According to the lawsuit, California community colleges are set to receive $580 million from the law, half of which is to go to direct relief for students.

Title IV regulates which students are eligible for federal student aid. The requirements include having a valid Social Security number, having a high school diploma or equivalent and, for male students, registering for the Selective Service.

The community colleges argue that placing such requirements on coronavirus assistance funds will harm the students most in need of relief.

“The whole notion and the whole spirit of the CARES Act is to support colleges and all students directly affected by the pandemic,” Foothill College President Thuy Thi Nguyen said.

However, according to Nguyen, the requirement that students be eligible for federal financial aid is limiting their ability to get relief, Nguyen said. Logistically, she noted, students need to have filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to show that they are eligible. The problem is, many community college students haven’t filled out the FAFSA.

Barriers in place

According to the lawsuit, filed May 11, to date 1,317 Foothill students had completed a questionnaire identifying their COVID-related needs. However, only 89 students had at that point received federal funds.

Foothill is working to determine if more students are in fact eligible, Nguyen said, and is continuing to encourage students to fill out the questionnaire.

One of the objections raised in the lawsuit is that the education department originally said the federal relief did not constitute financial aid, before it “suddenly and inexplicably changed its position.” Now, the department contends that only students eligible for financial aid can receive the emergency funding.

Some colleges, including Foothill, had already accepted a certification required to access the funds before the education department issued the guidance on the restrictions, the lawsuit states.

Now, the Foothill-De Anza district is working to find other sources of funding, outside the federal aid, to support students. The colleges have each identified roughly $200,000 in money raised by the Foothill-De Anza Foundation to support students during the crisis.

According to district Chancellor Judy Miner, the pandemic has worsened the difficult financial position many students were already in.

“Hunger and (lack of) housing just continue to be exacerbated by the pandemic,” she said.

When the district was invited to join the suit, Miner agreed. The expense of the litigation is being borne by the California attorney general’s office, she said, and she doesn’t anticipate a cost to the district.

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