College students are set to receive a second round of direct payments through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) following the passage of a coronavirus stimulus package in December.
In April of 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided $8.6 million to the University of New Mexico to be distributed as emergency relief grants for students. Undergraduate students were awarded a sum of either $465 or $779, depending on their expected family contribution. The recent stimulus package included renewed funding for the HEERF and once again directed that a portion of the funding be set aside by higher education institutions for grants to be paid directly to students to aid with pandemic-related hardships.
UNM’s model for distributing the new funds, however, is currently unknown. Brian Malone, director of the Student Financial Aid Office, told the Daily Lobo that the model is “still currently under discussion.”
“(We) do not know how much we will receive and when,” Malone said. “Though the legislation is approved, we are awaiting further guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, which includes a timeline on availability of funds and any further guidance on rules for selection and distribution.”
In a press release from the Department of Education, former Secretary Betsy DeVos — who has since resigned following the pro-Trump insurrection at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. last week — confirmed that the bill “does provide for additional financial grants to students impacted by the pandemic.” The department has since provided scant updates or guidance regarding the allocation and distribution of the nearly $23 billion in federal funds.
The Office of Postsecondary Education, a division of the Department of Education that handles the HEERF, did not respond to specific questions regarding allocation but instead responded with a link to their website. The website, however, has yet to be updated and said “(information) regarding the distribution of these funds is forthcoming and will be posted on this website when available.”
The American Council on Education (ACE), an organization separate from the Department of Education that deals with higher education policies and issues, issued their own estimates of the new allocations for each institution using the distribution model from the previous round of CARES Act funding.
“The estimated total for UNM is $31,408,000, with a minimum of $9,179,256 required for student grants,” Malone wrote in email correspondence with the Daily Lobo, citing the ACE estimates. He stressed that these numbers are estimates from an “external organization” and that they are not official or final.
The ACE described the estimates as intended to give a “ballpark sense” of how much an institution could expect to receive. The estimated allocations, if correct, would mean that the University would receive half a million more in funding for direct student payments than it did in April.
Cinnamon Blair, a spokesperson for the University, reiterated that the details of the funding are still being worked out between the federal government and UNM.
"The Department of Education has not yet published the amounts that UNM will be eligible to receive or published their guidelines or process for receiving or using the funds, so UNM has not yet determined how we will distribute funds we might receive under this program," Blair told the Daily Lobo.
The payments are especially impactful to students who have been claimed as dependents on another’s tax returns. The $600 direct payments to U.S. citizens funded by the recent bill, like the $1,200 payments issued by the CARES Act before it, are inaccessible for dependents. Furthermore, the bonus given to a taxpayer who claims someone as dependent is withheld if the dependent is over 17 years old, leaving dependent college students with neither direct, nor indirect financial assistance from the Treasury Department.
After the passage of the CARES Act, the Department of Education released a document clarifying that only students with a valid Social Security number were eligible for emergency grants, effectively blocking allocations to undocumented students, including those who paid taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. UNM responded by allocating their own funds to provide equal grants to undocumented and DACA students, as reported previously by the Daily Lobo.
The initial exclusion, further solidified by an “interim final rule” released by the Department of Education in June, is expected to apply to the new round of funds, given that the new relief package contains no new language to expand access to undocumented students. It is unclear whether the University will again fund grants in its absence.
The bill itself survived a perilous and tense period of uncertainty after lame duck President Donald Trump threatened to veto the bipartisan legislation.
In a video posted on Twitter — now unavailable after the company banned the president from its platform — Trump complained that the $600 payments were “ridiculously low” and requested the bill be amended to increase those payments to $2,000. He also ridiculed foreign spending provisions present in the bill negotiated by his own administration, inaccurately characterizing it as “having almost nothing to do with COVID.”
In reality, the COVID-19 stimulus package was part of a larger spending bill passed annually by Congress to fund almost every facet of the United States government. The veto threat raised concerns that, without the legislation enacted, the government would suffer its third shutdown under the Trump administration.
Despite a failed attempt by Democrats to amend the bill to increase the direct payments to citizens, it was eventually signed by the president. A new bill to increase the payments passed the House of Representatives, but has since been blocked by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
Liam DeBonis is the photo editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LiamDeBonis