Ten Things the Next Coronavirus Stimulus Can Do for College Students

By Asha Banerjee

Over the last few decades, state disinvestment in higher education has contributed to higher college costs and led to alarming debt levels for students with low incomes, especially students of color. Before the global COVID-19 pandemic, Black students owed and defaulted at higher rates than the national average, while women of color carried higher levels of debt than their male peers. Meanwhile states are now likely to make severe budget cuts in the near future as state revenue plummets because of COVID-19.

To improve the fiscal stability of states and institutions of higher education, continue to provide much-needed emergency aid to students, and maintain college affordability, Congress should make the following 10 policy changes in the next stimulus bill:

  1. Strengthen the Education Stabilization Fund by at least $50 billion so states can continue funding higher education. This additional investment should be targeted to emergency student aid for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) and to community colleges to strengthen their capacity to serve students with low incomes and students of color.
  2. Ensure that emergency financial aid is extended to all students with low incomes, regardless of their immigration status. Although the language of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act does not restrict which students can access emergency aid, the U.S. Department of Education put out recent guidance barring any student ineligible from federal financial aid, most notably undocumented students, from receiving the CARES Act’s emergency aid from their institutions of higher education.
  3. Include oversight measures to prevent states from price gouging on tuition to boost (or save) state revenue. The CARES Act offers flexibility and discretion to states in allocating their funding, but the Department of Education needs to institute transparency and accountability measures to ensure students with low incomes receive this aid and that states and institutions promote policies that control costs and increase access and affordability.
  4. Automatically extend work authorization for immigrant students who are DACA eligible or have Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Direct Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to halt all enforcement. The Department of Education should also provide clear guidance, support, and relief for international and immigrant students who might face expired visas.
  5. Prevent students with housing insecurity from homelessness through an immediate halt on all evictions and a pause in rent payments. Fifty-six percent of college students in a recent survey reported being housing insecure in the previous year, and 17 percent as homeless.  
  6. Increase funding for broadband access, such as the FCC’s Lifeline program, to help students with low incomes with online learning. In 2017, 3 in 10 households didn’t have broadband access, and many students don’t have laptops, so they rely on campus and public libraries.  
  7. Cancel at least $10,000 of student debt for all federally held loans, Perkins loans, and commercially held Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL), as well as ensure the Department of Education enforces compliance. The next stimulus package should pay off a portion of student debt by funding students’ payments. Given the racial and gender disparity in earnings, repaying debt takes much longer for students (and particularly women) of color. Canceling student debt will free up much-needed money to cover basic needs and help lower the racial equity gap.  
  8. Encourage waivers to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Congress should waive eligibility requirements so students can enroll and remain in this critical nutritional program during the crisis. Following Senator Kamala Harris’s proposed bill, Congress should also expand the Disaster-SNAP program to cover the COVID-19 crisis and lift the in-person application process for Disaster-SNAP. This expansion can allow states and territories to extend vital access to food assistance to students and immigrants.
  9. Establish clear guidance on employee benefits for all staff, including contingent faculty and instructional staff. There is still confusion on whether some public universities are included in the employers’ provisions under the CARES Act, such as the employee retention tax credit and the paycheck protection program, which excludes public entities. Furthermore, clarify that contingent faculty employees – such as adjunct faculty and other instructional staff, who provide essential services to college students – do not have a reasonable assumption of continued employment in between semesters in order to ensure their access to unemployment insurance.
  10. Prevent predatory for-profit institutions from getting stimulus money and benefits. “Proprietary schools” (which operate as for-profits) shouldn’t be allowed to continue preying on students with low incomes, students of color, and adult learners and then get tax and small business aid. Congress should also close the 90/10 loophole and rein in for-profit institutions that promote predatory practices.

The next stimulus bill must provide further relief to postsecondary students who have also faced income and job losses in the last month. Congress must not leave behind millions of already-struggling students and their families. Students need these resources and supports to meet their basic needs, complete their postsecondary credentials, and prepare to enter or return to the workforce.