Federal Higher Education Policy During COVID-19

Architect of the Capitol
Sept. 8, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic was a disruption like no other, and its impact on higher education has been significant. Rarely in higher education has change come so abruptly, for so many. Overnight, colleges were forced to shutter their campuses and move to remote learning in order to avoid a public health crisis. Millions of students who have only ever been in face-to-face courses were thrust into a new modality. Thousands of professors quickly learned what Zoom was as they were forced to embrace a new mode of teaching with few supports and little time to plan. Countless college administrators were left to fret about what the switch to virtual instruction would mean for enrollment, academic quality, students’ chances of success, and the perception of distance education.

New America’s Higher Education team watched this abrupt shift in postsecondary education closely. We have created a timeline to help others keep track of the many regulatory and legislative actions on the federal level that addressed higher education during the pandemic.

The above timeline graphic includes major federal education regulatory and legislative actions that addressed higher education during the pandemic. Below is more context on those actions and additional actions that, while important, are more minor.

January 2020

  • January 31: The Trump administration declared a public health emergency under the Public Health Service Act in response to the novel coronavirus.

March 2020

  • March 5: The Department of Education issued guidance for interruptions of study related to COVID-19, such as how to address study abroad students, students whose credit load fell below 12 because of the pandemic, students missing classes because of quarantine, foreign school relationships, federal work study, distance learning, satisfactory academic progress, enrollment status changes, and other topics. (The Department later provided additional guidance and updated the existing guidance; see below.)
  • March 13: President Trump declared a national emergency concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • March 17: The Department issued temporary flexibilies to permit accrediting agencies to perform virtual site visits and extend accreditation terms for institutions undergoing renewal, among other flexibilities.
  • March 18: The CDC issued guidance to help institutions react quickly to possible cases of COVID-19 on campuses and in communities, while maintaining the ability to research, learn, and teach. The guidance advised colleges on how to respond to cases of COVID-19 on campus based on the level of community transmission.
  • March 20: President Trump announced a 60-day suspension of payments and interest on federally held student loans, as well as a halt to collections on defaulted loans.
  • March 27: Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The bill sent roughly $14 billion to institutions of higher education, half of which was required to provide emergency grant aid to students. The aid was delivered to colleges based on a formula that was based half on FTE and half on enrollment of students eligible for Pell grants. The legislation also formalized the suspension of payments and interest on federally held student loans through September 30, 2020. It specified that the period of nonpayment counts towards programs like income-driven repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) if borrowers otherwise qualify. It gave institutions received flexibility on existing federal funds they receive. It also established the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, GEER, which allowed the Department of Education to give governors grants to distribute emergency funds to local education agencies and institutions of higher education.
  • March 20: The Department updated its guidance on interruptions of study to include a “FAQs” attachment.

April 2020

  • April 2: The Department posted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on distance education.
  • April 3: The Department provided additional guidance on interruptions of study that extended existing flexibilities and outlined additional flexibilities including for enrollment disruptions, distance education, return of Title IV funds, student aid information, and other areas. (Additional guidance was later provided on May 15, 2020.)
  • April 21: Secretary DeVos released guidance that limited emergency grant aid to students eligible for Title IV aid. This included U.S. citizens and some non-citizens but excluded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients.
  • April 23: The Department released the Application for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. This allowed institutions to apply for the relief funds provided under the CARES Act.

May 2020

June 2020

  • June 11: Secretary DeVos published an interim final rule limiting eligibility for CARES Act emergency grants to citizens and eligible non-citizens, excluding undocumented students.
  • June 12: A federal judge in Washington State blocked the implementation of the CARES Act emergency grant aid rule.
  • June 16: The Department’s Office of Postsecondary Education updated the guidance for interruptions of study related to COVID-19 from March 20 to expand flexibility for programs through the end of the calendar year or the end of the COVID-19 national emergency, whichever came later.
  • June 17: A federal judge in California blocked Secretary DeVos from enforcing the emergency grant aid guidance on California Community Colleges in response to its lawsuit.
  • June 17: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report highlighting how the guidance on emergency grants made it difficult for colleges and universities to disperse money to students. It said the ​​Department’s “evolving communication may have delayed schools’ distribution of funds to students.”

July 2020

  • July 7: A federal judge in Massachusetts blocked the emergency grant aid guidance in that state.
  • July 9: The Department released a reminder for colleges about alternative documentation and an increase in professional judgment around eligibility for financial aid due to COVID-19, meant to support those who were experiencing challenges retrieving certain documents, like foster students or unaccompanied homeless students.
  • July 10: The Department released additional regulatory flexibilities related to COVID-19, extending selected deadlines such as certain security and safety reports, equity in athletics disclosures, and fiscal operations reports.

August 2020

  • August 8: President Trump extended the payment pause and interest suspension on federally held student loans until December 31, 2020.
  • August 21: The Department extended selected flexibility deadlines for Title IV and HEA programs through the end of the calendar year or the end of the payment period that includes the end of the federally declared emergency related to COVID-19, whichever is later.

October 2020

  • October 5: The Department’s Office of Postsecondary Education published FAQs for Title IV funding during COVID-19 on campus-based programs, study abroad, cost of attendance and need analysis, Title IV funds, academic year and schedule changes, distance education, student eligibility, and recordkeeping.

November 2020

  • November 3: Joe Biden was elected president on a platform that included free community college and free four-year, public college for families making under $125,000 a year.

December 2020

  • December 11: The Department released waivers and flexibilities that included the extension of student loan benefits through the end of 2021 and updated waivers and modifications for federal student financial aid program regulations.
  • December 21: The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 passed, ensuring the government was funded through to September 30, 2021, and it included a myriad of higher education provisions. It increased the Pell Grant by $150, allowed the Department to extend existing servicing contracts up to two more years, revised and simplified FAFSA, and provided $23 billion in funds COVID relief money to public and private nonprofit colleges and universities. It also created the Emergency Broadband Benefit program and made Pell recipients eligible for it. The bill provided $4.1 billion for the GEER Fund for governors to distribute to K–12 and higher education organizations and institutions. It expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to include college students who are enrolled at least part time, although students must also meet other income and eligibility criteria to receive the benefits. This new benefit is only available until 30 days after the end of the COVID emergency. Pell Grant eligibility was also restored for incarcerated students, and Pell Grant eligibility was restored for defrauded students.
  • December 22: President-elect Biden announced Miguel Cardona as nominee for secretary of education.
  • December 22: The payment pause and interest suspension on federal student loans was extended to January 30, 2021.

January 2021

March 2021

  • March 1: Cardona confirmed by the Senate as secretary of education.
  • March 11: Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that authorized HEERF III. HEERF III provided just under $40 billion for higher education, half of which was for emergency grants to students. It also tightened 90-10 rule for for-profits and made future forgiven student loan debt tax-free.
  • March 19: The Department released new guidance on the use of HEERF money, including flexibility to use it to discharge students’ institutional debts, clarity around using it for aid to students enrolled in non-credit or dual enrollment programs, and ability to address revenue loss from March 2020 onward. Institutions could also reach out to students directly about their temporarily expanded eligibility for SNAP benefits.
  • March 29: The Department announced relief for borrowers who received student loan discharges because of disability, which protected borrowers from having to repay their loans because they were unable to provide information on earnings during the pandemic.
  • March 30: The payment pause and interest suspension on federal student loans was extended to Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) that were in default.

April 2021

  • April 2: The Department of Education discharged $1.6 billion of debt provided to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) that participate in the HBCU Capital Financing Program.
  • April 20: GAO released a report on emergency aid.
  • April 28: The Biden administration announced the American Families Plan. Highlights of the plan include two years of community college free, an increase of $1,800 to the maximum Pell Grant, a $62 billion college completion fund, permission for DREAMers to access Pell Grants, and investments in minority-serving institutions (MSIs), Hispanic serving institutions (HSIs), HBCUs, and tribal colleges and universities.

June 2021

  • June 7: The Department released the ED COVID-19 Handbook: Strategies for Safe Operation and Addressing the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education Students, Faculty, and Staff. It provides guidance on safe in-person instruction, mental health support for staff and students, access to broadband and technology, support for students’ basic needs, and support for students who are caregivers.
  • June 16: The Department announced the approval of new categories of borrower defense claims for students of ITT Technical Institute. The new categories provide $500 million to 18,000 borrowers defrauded by ITT.

July 2021

  • July 13: Temporary changes to the federal student aid verification process for the upcoming academic year were announced to focus on fraud and identity theft, relieving many low-income students of the burden that verification puts on them.
  • July 29: The Department announced it would expand the Second Chance Pell experiment for the 2022–23 award year while it works to implement the legislative restoration of Pell eligibility for incarcerated students.
  • July 29: The Department announced the disbursement of $3.2 billion in HEERF funds targeted to HBCUs, tribal colleges, HSIs, and other MSIs, as well as low-income colleges through the Strengthening Institutions Program.