College students and their families may be wondering if the federal government shutdown is affecting financial aid.
For now, local experts say, families needn't worry too much.
The U.S. Department of Education is fully funded so it is not affected by the shutdown. Additionally, federal financial aid for the 2018-19 school year was fully appropriated months ago and funding for things like Pell Grants is mandatory, according to Josh Norman, associate vice president of enrollment management at Eastern Illinois University.
But what about financial aid for next school year? That's where things could get sticky if the shutdown persists, Illinois officials say.
The federal student aid office is still up and running, so students can still file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid. However, the student aid office uses other federal departments to verify information submitted in the aid form.
For example, eligible males must register for the draft. The government checks with the Selective Service System to confirm the student indeed registered and alerts the school that the application is in good order, enabling the school to dole out aid.
But those cross checks are not being done because other parts of the federal government are closed, including parts of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. Without those checks being completed, schools cannot award aid.
Several Illinois schools said they've received some or even no calls to their financial aid offices complaining that students were unable to complete FAFSAs. Illinois starts accepting the aid forms on Oct. 1, and several officials said the majority of students seeking aid for fall 2019 completed their applications long before the shutdown.
But those students completing their FAFSAs now could be left in a bind by an ongoing federal shutdown as schools gear up to start distributing financial aid for 2019-20.
"About a month from now is when we're going to start to get panicky for those students whose matches are not being done," said Kiely Fletcher, executive director for financial aid at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
What also is unclear is whether those federal agencies will redo verifications on those applications once the government reopens, or if that burden will fall to schools and students, Fletcher said. UIC is working with students to send in extra documentation directly — such as providing a copy of a permanent resident card — rather than relying on the government systems, Fletcher said.
But there is no workaround to verifying if a student has registered for the draft, Fletcher said.
"We'll have to come up with a Plan B. We do not want to prevent students from receiving their aid," Fletcher said. "We want students to have as much time as possible to make the right choice about where they want to go to college. Any time after the first week of March, that's just not enough time."
Bridget Curl, director of financial aid at Illinois State University, said there about 150 students whose applications have been flagged because of incomplete cross checks. But Illinois State has not started awarding aid for 2019-20 yet so the immediate impact is minimal.
"At this point, we're not overly concerned. But depending on how long this continues, it could elevate to be a problem," Curl said.
One procedure that had been held up by the shutdown was verifying tax information. The FAFSA enables students to retrieve the prior year's tax information through the Internal Revenue Service. That agency, too, is affected by the shutdown. But Wednesday afternoon, the Education Department advised schools they could instead request paper copies of a student's tax returns, bypassing the IRS altogether.
"That alleviated a huge issue with the shutdown," Fletcher said.