Advice for Employers and Recruiters

Are college students eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)?

Steven Rothberg AvatarSteven Rothberg
May 18, 2020

One of the many untold stories from the 30+ million job losses our country has experienced over the past few weeks is the devastating impact it has had on students and recent graduates of technical schools, vocational schools, community colleges, colleges, and universities.

  • There are about 20 million, currently enrolled students of four-year colleges and universities. Roughly five million of them graduate a year.
  • There are about 17 million students of two-year colleges. These are called community colleges in most of the country but some are referred to as junior colleges. Roughly four million graduate a year.
  • There are about five million students of one-year colleges. These are mostly technical and vocational schools. About two million graduate a year. 
  • In total, we’re looking at about 42 million students and 11 million graduates in any given year.

There is a misconception that many college students don’t work. Certainly, there are some that don’t and many don’t work year-round, but the vast majority do work at least part of the year. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 81 percent of part-time college students and almost half of full-time students work. About two-third work and about half are financially independent. Those translate into about 11 million, working, currently enrolled students with 75 percent of those working more than 20 hours per week. 

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program was designed to provide, effectively, unemployment insurance to people who otherwise would not be eligible such as those who were working part-time, in the gig economy, sole proprietors, and others. The law is vague as to how students should be treated and there is mass confusion about that. Some college career service offices are advising students to file for unemployment coverage and, if they’re denied, file for PUA. Some are advising against both because the law does not explicitly state that students who weren’t employed during the year and who didn’t have a paid job lined up are still covered, while others look at the intent of the law and feel that it clearly was designed to include those students. 

What we’re hearing, anecdotally, is that your ability to collect PUA is largely driven by where you live and where you go to school, which are often different. About half of states appear to be covering students who are available for full-time work with regular, unemployment insurance benefits. The other half of states consider your status as a student to be incompatible with your ability to work full-time, despite many full-time students also working full-time and even more students going to school part-time so they can work full-time.

Section 2012(a)(ii)(2) of the CARES Act seemingly covers these people as they are self-employed, seeking part-time employment, do not have sufficient work history, or otherwise do not qualify for regular unemployment. However, some states are saying that these students still don’t qualify because they are not able and available for work. Sometimes the states are ruling that way simply because the taxpayer is a student. In other cases, the states are saying that the students quit their jobs and therefore aren’t eligible, even if the students “quit” their jobs because they lost their on-campus housing when their schools closed and so they had to return home, often to another state, to live with family members. These states, we feel, should regard these students as constructively terminated from their employment, which would make them eligible for UI, PUA, or both. 

Another, somewhat related issue is the impact of the $1,200 per taxpayer (below the income threshold) stimulus payment. Few seem to realize that most students weren’t eligible because they’re mostly listed as dependents on the tax returns of their parents but that the parents also don’t get the stimulus payment. If the student was 15, they wouldn’t get the stimulus payment but their parents would. If anything, there is a greater need for the stimulus money for an 18-21-year-old who is living away from home attending college than their 15-year-old sibling living at home.

I have yet to hear a rational basis for this distinction. The best explanation that I’ve heard was that it was a Congressional oversight that wasn’t serious enough for the Administration to veto the law over. Congress may have intended in some discussions to make the 18-year-old ineligible as the parents would claim the stimulus but, in other discussions, they reversed those and then, when the CARE Act was hastily pulled together, no one noticed the discrepancy or they didn’t feel that it was important enough to delay the passage of the bill. 

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