With the new fiscal year beginning at the turn of the month, disagreement between moderate and far-right Republicans has stonewalled the House of Representatives’ efforts to pass 12 appropriation bills on time. And with efforts to pass a short-term spending bill that will keep government funding alive through October 31 appearing unfruitful, a federal government shutdown next week appears imminent.
“Everyone I talk to—people in Congress and people in agencies—is [saying] we will absolutely have a shutdown on Oct. 1,” said John Fansmith, senior vice president of government relations at the American Council on Education, in an ACE Sept. 21 podcast. “Really, the [question] right now is how long it’s going to go. Ten days? Two weeks? Those seem to be the ones you hear most often.”
Colleges and universities dependent on the Department of Education’s discretionary funds could experience “severe” impacts on the cash flow for student support services. Because the Department only allows essential staff to continue working during a government shutdown, it could see 90% of its staff furloughed, according to its latest contingency plan, last updated in 2021.
Among those employees, Fansmith posited, could be those at the Office of Federal Student Aid working on the FAFSA Simplification Form, which is due to reach students in mid-December rather than its usual October date. The University of Maryland states that a government shutdown “could delay the release of that form and impact eligibility determination for student aid programs.”
“It’s certainly a lot of uncertainty we don’t need on something that’s so important to campuses,” said Fansmith.
However, the Department of Education has planned for this and will deem employees essential to allow the FAFSA’s rollout to continue unaffected, said AACRAO Director of Public Relations William Gill.
Current Pell Grant recipients should not expect any impact from the shutdown since most aid programs are funded a year in advance in preparation for the aid they received at the beginning of the fall semester. But these are near-term consolations. The Department of Education’s contingency memo stated that disbursing Pell Grants and federal direct student loans “could continue for a very limited time,” but “these operations could also experience some level of disruption due to a lapse” during a shutdown.
Additionally, student loan borrowers shouldn’t get too excited about escaping payments due to a shutdown since student loans are transferred to third-party loan servicers. However, as they are reportedly bogged down by a wave of borrowers opting back into repayments, former students who wish to contact the Department of Education will not be able to reach anyone.
Students’ inability to reach a federal agent to speak with is the most common disruption that will result from the shutdown. Those who wish to speak to the Department of Veterans Affairs and researchers who want to get ahold of the National Science Foundation will reach a dead phone line. Moreover, the latter will be unable to reward new grants, contracts and amendments, and it could face delays as the federal government resumes operations, according to UMD.