The longest government shutdown in American history began on Dec. 22 and has presented looming questions about federal financial aid for many college students, including those at Ole Miss.
Initially left without instruction from the U.S. Department of Education, the university’s Office of Financial Aid was briefly unable to complete verifications for many students regarding their Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and was unable to award financial aid packages.
“We were in limbo wondering what was going to happen to some of these people,” said Laura Diven-Brown, the university’s Director of Financial Aid. “Luckily, this occurred in the middle of the academic year, when most of our students had already submitted their FAFSA, but we did experience trouble with transfer students and students who had not previously finished their verification.”
After several weeks of dealing with the inability to grant financial aid, the university’s office received instructions from the Department of Education giving them discretion to approve financial aid without going through the normal process and by substituting other verifying information.
Diven-Brown said nearly one-third of students’ FAFSA applications are “flagged” for an additional verification process before those students may receive federal aid. The IRS, the federal government’s revenue service, is typically tasked with providing this verification. During a shutdown, with an understaffed IRS, this process becomes more difficult.
“People flagged for verification are supposed to provide the school with copies of IRS tax transcripts, a function which was suspended due to the government shutdown,” she said.
With around two-thirds of full-time college students receiving some form of financial aid, the ability to apply for and renew the FAFSA is crucial to the completion of secondary education for millions of students in the country and thousands of students on the Ole Miss campus.
The primary way in which the government shutdown is putting college students’ financial aid at risk is through an inability to complete FAFSA verification. Under the recent instruction of the Department of Education, the Office of Financial Aid is temporarily utilizing signed tax returns in place of the IRS transcripts to verify student information.
The Senate holds two competing bills aimed at ending the shutdown and will vote on both by the end of the day on Thursday.
The official website for Federal Student Aid, which is an office of the Department of Education, states, “As has been the case during past government shutdowns, we are making every effort to ensure minimal impact on students, borrowers, schools, lenders and guaranty agencies and their ability to participate in the federal student aid programs.”
At the University of Mississippi, despite the shutdown, current students are still receiving financial aid for the 2019 spring semester and should not, for the time being, be experiencing any difficulties with predetermined scholarship money.
“The FASFA is still live and on the web, and all of those functions are still there,” Diven-Brown said. “Our Department of Education member on staff is still working. Money is still moving just fine from the federal government to our office.”