Biden Reverses Trump on Covid Aid for Noncitizen Students (1)

  • Federal government providing $36 billion for schools, students
  • Trump administration excluded noncitizens from aid

(Adds lawmaker comments in last three paragraphs.)

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International students and those without legal immigration status will be eligible for Covid-19 aid, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said, in a reversal from the Trump administration.

“We want to make sure that all students have an opportunity to have access to funds to help them get back on track,” Cardona said. “There are students in need and the pandemic doesn’t discriminate.”

The Education Department announced the release of $36 billion in emergency grants to colleges Tuesday along with guidance on how they could support struggling students, mitigate the spread of the virus, and re-engage students whose academic progress was disrupted by the pandemic.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks at the Boys and Girls Club of New Haven on March 26, 2021, in New Haven, Conn.

The aid is part of the American Rescue Plan (Public Law 117-2), the $1.9 trillion stimulus package President Joe Biden signed in March.

Cardona’s predecessor, Betsy DeVos, told colleges last year that students without legal immigration status and foreign students wouldn’t qualify for aid offered by the CARES Act (Public Law 116-136).

Colleges across the country shut down campuses last year to halt the spread of the virus. The switch to remote learning and the economic harm wrought by the pandemic caused enrollment to plunge at many institutions. Undergraduate enrollment this spring fell 5.9% compared with the same period a year earlier, the largest decline since the pandemic began.

Many students and their families are dealing with significant economic losses that could be a barrier to enrolling or returning to college, Cardona told reporters ahead of the funding announcement.

The American Rescue Plan requires institutions to spend at least half the money on direct assistance to students. Colleges could use funds to contact financial aid applicants. They can’t use the funds for marketing, recruitment, or advertising, administration officials said.

Trump-Era Fight

DeVos told colleges last year that noncitizen students weren’t eligible for $6 billion in direct aid provided through the CARES Act, citing a 1996 welfare overhaul (Public Law 104-193) signed by then-President Bill Clinton. Democrats in Congress said that decision ignored lawmakers’ intent.

The issue eventually wound up in federal courts where judges in separate rulings blocked the enforcement of a DeVos rule restricting Covid relief.

Politics, Legal Fights Bedevil DeVos Doling Out Covid Aid

Cardona said guidance from the Biden administration makes clear all students can receive federal assistance. “What it does is really simplify the definition of a student,” he said.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, praised Cardona’s guidance, saying she was relieved to see a “cruel decision” by DeVos reversed.

But Rep. Virginia Foxx(R-N.C.), the ranking member on the House Education and Labor Committee, called the guidance “an insult to every American.”

“The law is clear; federal funds are for hardworking citizens,” she said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at; Sarah Babbage at

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