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The California Community Colleges, seeking to protect hundreds of thousands of students denied eligibility to federal emergency student assistance, has filed a lawsuit to stop the U.S. Department of Education from placing arbitrary eligibility restrictions on relief funds Congress approved to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit filed Monday against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asks the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco, to declare the Department of Education’s eligibility requirements for emergency grants to students under the CARES Act unlawful and unconstitutional and to halt their implementation.

“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. Among those harmed are veterans, citizens who have not completed a federal financial aid application, and non-citizens, including those with DACA status,” CCC Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said. 

“CCA is pleased to see the Chancellor’s Office take action to provide to colleges the flexibility they need to to help students without the restriction of eligibility requirements.  Community college faculty support the education of all California Community College students,” said Community College Association President Eric Kaljumägi. “We believe that every student attending a public community college is entitled to equal access to all educational opportunities regardless of their immigration status.  The goal of public education is to provide students with the skills necessary to become responsible and healthy members of society. Any monetary disincentives that penalize students create barriers to future success and should not exist.”

“Congress authorized these funds for student expenses related to the pandemic, giving colleges and universities flexibility to help students in need without imposing eligibility requirements,” said California Community Colleges Board of Governors President Tom Epstein. “The Board of Governors stands firmly with students and our partner college districts in seeking to overturn the Department of Education’s capricious action.”

Joining the lawsuit against DeVos is the Los Angeles Community College District, the Los Rios Community College District, which serves the greater Sacramento area, the State Center Community College District, which serves the greater Fresno area, the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, which serves the South Bay area, and the San Diego Community College District. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is representing the Board of Governors and the Chancellor.

Although immediately following enactment of the CARES Act, the U.S. Department of Education took the position that this emergency relief is available for all students and that each higher education institution had discretion on how to distribute aid, it later issued guidance that took the position that only students eligible for federal financial aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act may receive emergency federal assistance. However, there is no provision in the CARES Act that sets eligibility requirements or provides the Secretary of Education with the discretion to do so.  The California Community Colleges serves an estimated 70,000 undocumented students, many of whom have DACA status. The Department of Education has also excluded students who do not have a high school diploma or GED and those who are in high school and participating in dual enrollment programs.

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