As Emergency Relief Funds Arrive, California Community Colleges Sue To Include More Students

Long Beach Community College in March 2020. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

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California's community college system has filed a lawsuit against the federal government alleging that the U.S. Department of Education's decision to prohibit colleges from distributing stimulus funds to undocumented students and others is arbitrary, unlawful, and unconstitutional.

About 2 million students are enrolled in California's 115 community colleges. California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said hundreds of thousands of them have been deemed ineligible for aid by the decision.

"The Department of Education ignored the intent of the CARES Act to give local colleges discretion to aid students most affected by the pandemic, and instead has arbitrarily excluded as many as 800,000 community college students," he said. "Among those harmed are veterans, citizens who have not completed a federal financial aid application, and non-citizens, including those with DACA status."


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The federal CARES Act included more than $14 billion in aid to help higher education institutions deal with the COVID-19 crisis. The list of colleges receiving funds is long. Half of the amount received by campuses goes directly to students in the form of grants. Santa Ana College, for example, received nearly $3 million in Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEERF) funds to distribute to students.

"Congress provided higher education institutions with unfettered flexibility to distribute the relief to affected students as they deemed appropriate, imposing no eligibility limitations on this emergency relief for students," said the lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley is chancellor of 115-campus California Community Colleges system.

After colleges began submitting paperwork for the funds, the U.S. Department of Education changed its rules and prohibited campuses from distributing the stimulus checks to undocumented students and others, the lawsuit said.

Department officials disputed the lawsuit's claim that they overstepped their authority.

"Congress could have chosen to include DACA students and other foreign nationals in the legislation, or granted the Department the authority to send this money to noncitizens, but they did neither of those things," Angela Morabito, the U.S. Department of Education's press secretary, wrote in an email response.

"It is absurd that special interests want the Department to fabricate a basis to send U.S. taxpayer money to noncitizens, especially given how many American students are in need of this emergency relief," she said.

Morabito said states and higher education institutions could go ahead and use their own funds to help undocumented students.

Eric Lara, associate dean for student success and equity at Mt. San Antonio College, said 1,500 of his school's 38,000 students are undocumented.

"They are paying college tuition, they're working, are providing funds back into the economy. And at the end of the day they are students, they are human, they are individuals in this country, why shouldn't we afford them the same rights and funding that the other students are getting?" Lara said.

He said those students have been struggling as much, if not more, than their peers.

"My mom is the only one who's working right now," said Areli, a second-year Mt. San Antonio College student who asked that her last name not be used because she doesn't have proper documentation to live in the United States.

In March, Areli was laid off from the Mexican restaurant where she worked on Saturdays and Sundays. Her brother isn't working either. She's living off the money she was saving to attend either UCLA or UC Santa Cruz in the fall.

She said she felt valued after learning that Chancellor Ortiz Oakley is challenging the U.S. Department of Education's limits on federal grants to students like her.

"If I see that person, I would give him a hug. Because he's someone who's fighting for us," she said.

MONEY FLOWING TO OTHER COLLEGE STUDENTS

While the dispute plays out in court, those HEERF funds are starting to show in other students' accounts in varying amounts. At Mt. San Antonio College, students are receiving aid in amounts ranging from $300 to $900, based on economic need and whether a student is enrolled full or part-time.

At Cal State Northridge, $22.3 million in HEERF funds is going to students in amounts ranging from $308 to $968.

"I got the full amount, so $968," said Isabella O'Brien, a film production major. "As much I would really like to contribute to the economy with it, which I know is what it was intended for, I'm either putting more than half of it, if not all of it, in my savings."

She said she also received the federal CARES Act $1,200 stimulus check directly from the government. It'll all come in handy, she said, because she moved in with her father after her campus shifted learning online and she's helping him pay for groceries. She's also thinking of the expenses she may have later this year when she returns to campus.

Cal Poly Pomona, which enrolls about 14,000 fewer students, received $15.5 million in HEERF money, which it is distributing in grants ranging from $1,000 to $250, lesser amounts if a student attends part-time.

"I got $650 which is really great," said Cal Poly Pomona senior Taylor Wood. It'll cover a large part of her rent for the month.

"That's going to go toward my living expenses for the last couple of months that I'm living near school, and that will help me save up a lot of money so I can move back home and start a career," she said.

Orange Coast College is a community college located in Costa Mesa, California. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

EACH COLLEGE COMES UP WITH THEIR OWN RULES FOR FUNDS

The federal government determined HEERF aid to campuses based in part on how many students on each campus receive federal Pell grants. Campuses gave out higher amounts to students with greater need, based on federal financial aid forms they'd filled out.

"We wanted to make sure we were equitable in the process," said Jessica Wagoner, senior associate vice president of enrollment management and services at Cal Poly Pomona. "Timeliness and administrative simplicity was very important."

"Unfortunately, some students were not eligible due to the CARES guideline," she added. "But the CSU and Cal Poly Pomona are exploring all funding options to help the students not eligible for CARES funds."

COMMUNITY COLLEGE STUDENTS RECEIVE SMALLER GRANTS

East Los Angeles College (ELAC) received nearly $5.4 million to give to students, or about a quarter of the disbursement to Cal State Northridge, which enrolls about 2,000 more students. The vast majority of ELAC students attend part-time.

The college is part of the nine-campus L.A. Community College District and it says its students will receive grants in the amount of $300.

El Camino College enrolls about 24,000 students. Officials there said nearly $3.5 million in HEERF funds is reaching students this week in either $250 or $500 amounts. The greater amount goes to students taking six or more units. Twelve units or more is considered a full-time load but only about a third of El Camino's students take twelve or more units.

That disparity between university student and community college student grant amounts has basic needs advocates worried.

"If we treat the moment correctly, this will be an opportunity to make sure that the needs that students continually have [will] not be the reason they don't come back to campus," said Rachel Sumekh, the founder of Swipe Out Hunger, an organization that helps college students with basic needs such as food.

Her group and others have been raising awareness about how housing and food insecurity derail college careers. Sumekh said $300 may not be enough to keep a community college student enrolled while balancing work, family, and a full- or part-time course load.

Some campuses, like Cal Poly Pomona, are sending funds automatically to its neediest students and having those with less need apply for a grant. UCLA requires all students to apply for the grant.

"This is a really, really tough moment," said Cal State Long Beach political science professor Kevin Wallsten. He's been studying the distribution of federal stimulus funds. "When you ask students to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops, that's when you start losing them."

Students are receiving a lot of emails from professors and administrators, he said, and he can see how this very important notification of free federal money coming to them could be lost in an inbox.