The department plans to file an appeal and “fully expects to prevail,” spokeswoman Angela Morabito said.
The judge’s ruling applies only to students at California community colleges, but comes on the heels of a similar, temporary decision from a federal judge in Washington that applies to colleges and universities in that state.
Congress included about $6 billion in its sweeping economic relief package so that colleges could make emergency grants to students who were struggling financially as campuses shutdown due to the pandemic. The money is meant to help them with technology needs, course materials, food, health care and child care.
In April, the Department of Education said that only those students who are eligible for existing federal student aid would be allowed to receive the new emergency grant. That excludes undocumented immigrants, international students and those who are in default on federal student loans, as well as students who aren’t meeting academic standards or enrolled in ineligible education programs.
Its interpretation of the law also blocks immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which was upheld by the Supreme Court Thursday in response to the Trump administration’s attempt to end the program. Even with the protections of DACA reaffirmed, those students remain ineligible for federal student aid.
But many colleges and some Democratic lawmakers disagreed with the way the Department of Education interpreted the coronavirus aid law, arguing that Congress didn’t intend to exclude these groups from eligibility. Some groups worried that veterans, who are less likely to file for financial aid, would also miss out.
“As students across the country are struggling to make ends meet in the face of unprecedented financial challenges, Secretary DeVos’ efforts to deny some much-needed aid is cruel,” said Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington and the ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, in a statement last week.
In court documents, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor of California’s community college system and lead plaintiff in the case, says that the department’s interpretation bars 800,000 of his 1.5 million students from the aid.
In her ruling Wednesday, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers wrote that the department “manufactured ambiguity where none exists by imposing their own restrictions on the definition of ‘student.'”
DeVos pushed forward Monday, formalizing her guidance by releasing a new rule.
In a statement, DeVos said the rule “helps erase any uncertainty some institutions have expressed and helps make sure we can support America’s students facing the greatest needs.”
According to a survey conducted by National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, most colleges have already disbursed the money to students. But some indicated that unclear guidance from the administration slowed down the process. While the money was allocated in Congress in late March, most schools didn’t have the money out until June.