The NCSL Blog


By Austin Reid

The CARES Act provides a $14.25 billion Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) for institutions of higher education to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harvard University Credit: Charles Krupa/AP in Business InsiderOf these funds, 90% is allocated to colleges and universities based primarily on their share of students receiving the Pell Grant. The Department of Education has released a table with allocation amounts for each institution.

At least 50% of these funds must be distributed as emergency financial aid to students who have had their semester disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The remaining 50% can be used for institutional uses, although an institution could choose to allocate more than 50% of funds for emergency aid for students.

Institutions that receive this money must agree to continue to pay employees and contractors to the “greatest extent practicable.” Institutions can apply for these funds here.

Emergency Financial Aid Grants to Students

On April 9, the Department of Education released $6.28 billion in emergency financial aid for students. Emergency aid can include anything under a student’s cost of attendance, which includes food, housing, course materials, technology, health care and child care.

Institutions are responsible for distributing the emergency aid to students and must develop their own processes and priorities for awarding aid to students. The emergency aid must be provided as direct cash payments to students and cannot be used to refund schools for reimbursements already provided to students or applied to outstanding charges on student accounts.

Students can receive this emergency aid only if they are eligible to receive federal financial aid, which is most often verified by filling out the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). As a result, undocumented students and international students are ineligible to receive emergency aid. Students who are enrolled in exclusively online coursework are also ineligible to receive emergency aid, even if they are eligible for federal financial aid.

In an April 9 letter, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos encouraged universities to prioritize students with the greatest needs, as well as consider a maximum funding threshold to encourage wide distribution of funds. The letter also asked institutions without great student need to consider giving part of their allocation to institutions with significant need. On April 22, DeVos then asked, but did not require, wealthy institutions to turn down HEERF funds. (Harvard announced Wednesday that it would not accept the funds.)

On April 21, the department released an FAQ that provided clarification on how emergency financial aid can be disbursed.

Institutional Portion of Funds

On April 21, the department released the remaining $6.28 billion in the HEERF for institutional uses. The institutional portion of funds can be used by institutions to cover any cost associated with significant changes to the delivery of instruction due to COVID-19.

Notably, these funds can be used to refund institutions for reimbursements provided to students for room and board, tuition, and other fees that were made on or after March 13, when President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.

Institutions may also reimburse themselves for and purchase equipment or software, pay for online licensing fees, or pay for internet service for students as part of a transition to distance learning. These funds may also be used to provide additional emergency financial aid grants to students.

On April 21, the Department released an FAQ that provided clarification on how the institutional portion of funds can be used.

Read a summary of other CARES provisions on higher education in a previous post.

Austin Reid is the education committee director in NCSL's State-Federal Division. 

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.