Education

Students seeking U.S. financial aid despite shutdown

High school seniors apply for FAFSA amid IRS uncertainty

The U.S. Capitol is pictured on day 30 of a partial government shutdown, in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2019. REUTERS/Al Drago
The U.S. Capitol is pictured on day 30 of a partial government shutdown, in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2019. REUTERS/Al Drago

High school seniors weighing their post-graduation plans — including tens of thousands in Iowa — can keep applying for federal financial aid even as the government stays partially shut down.

That doesn’t mean, however, that some have not hit snags in the filing process or even been deterred from it completely as a result of idled government departments including the Internal Revenue Service, which holds financial documents applicants seek.

“We’ve had a lot of phone calls from students or parents who were trying to get things through the IRS website, and it was down,” said Iowa State University Student Financial Aid Director Roberta Johnson. “Since that was non-functional, we didn’t know what we could accept.”

The shutdown hasn’t affected students already approved for federal aid, Johnson said, noting the U.S. Department of Education budget received its appropriation before the shutdown and its administrators are at work to answer questions.

The impact on some of the new filers represents a sliver of the shutdown’s spreading impact across Iowa’s campuses — including for researchers relying on federal partnerships, annual funding renewals and new grants.

“We continue to monitor the situation closely,” John Keller, interim vice president of the University of Iowa’s Office of the Vice President for Research, said recently in a statement about the shutdown. “Hopefully this will be resolved soon so our researchers and scholars can turn their full attention back to their work.”

The government has taken steps to minimize potential harm, like ordering some furloughed workers — including at the IRS — back on the job, without pay for now, to tackle a backlog of unresolved issues and process tax refunds.

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That helped those affected students filing the “Free Application for Federal Student Aid” form, known as FAFSA, who were prompted to complete an extra IRS verification step.

That has Johnson hoping for a return to “some semblance of normalcy.”

“Hopefully that means, from our perspective, things will get back on track,” she said.

Before the IRS workers’ return, the Education Department disseminated temporary guidance for affected FAFSA filers that allowed schools to accept signed 1040 tax forms and signed non-filing forms instead of tax return transcripts from the IRS — which were temporarily unavailable online.

“I’m hopeful the department will continue to stand behind the guidance they issued on Jan. 9, and it will stay in place through the shutdown until operations resume to normal,” Johnson said, noting the change is one many have wanted for years anyway.

As of Jan. 8, ISU had 231 students enrolled for the spring semester who had holds on their records for tax documentation needs, Johnson said.

The university has worked with those students in the weeks since to use the go-round, and it also has helped find alternatives for a smaller number of noncitizens eligible for aid who require a match with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

On a statewide level, the FAFSA completion rate stands at 40 percent of this year’s high school seniors — with some scholarships requiring information by March 1. The official application cycle, which starts Oct. 1, doesn’t end until July 1, according to Elizabeth Keest Sedrel, communications coordinator for Iowa College Aid.

Johnson said Iowa State’s FAFSA application numbers so far are down slightly, although it’s difficult to know whether that’s the result of the confusion. For example, she said, more students of late believe their income is too high.

“And we also know that in the areas where students generally come to us from, there has been a decline in the number of high school graduates or those who are college-ready,” Johnson said.

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As for research-related impacts of the shutdown on Iowa’s universities, the UI recently launched a website for scholars wondering about the fallout for their work and laboratories.

Because its research-related funding comes largely from the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the National Institutes of Health, many UI projects are unaffected for now, according to the website.

Agencies whose funding wasn’t approved before the shutdown, however, include the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Researchers funded out of those agencies are authorized to keep spending within their allotted totals, but agency personnel in many cases are not available for collaboration, and new awards or modifications are not being issued.

For UI scientists working with NASA, for example, this means growing concerns for potential delayed projects.

“I am still hanging on with my own projects for the time being,” UI physics and astronomy professor Jasper Halekas told The Gazette. “However, at least one major project in the department has had to stop work already, and there will no doubt be more to come if the shutdown continues.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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