Federal efforts pertaining to COVID-19

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Congress and the Trump administration are working on legislation and guidance related to federal student aid and other issues affecting colleges and students as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Education Department (ED) soon will release more guidance on federal student aid as the number of colleges closing campuses and making programming adjustments increases. And colleges certainly have a lot of questions about how those changes affect student aid. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) on Tuesday held a webinar to answer questions related to coronavirus and student aid that drew 6,000 registrants.

Meanwhile, in Congress, House Democrats have introduced a companion bill to a Senate proposal that would provide emergency grants to eligible college students for basic needs. The two bills also would offer flexibility to some student aid requirements.

NASFAA expects Congress to work on other related legislation that lawmakers will likely package together in a week or two.

Q&A on student aid

NASFAA received advance notice of some information in the upcoming ED guidance. For example, the department won’t require colleges to make changes to cost-of-attendance requirements as a result of campus closures and other changes.

Colleges that are shortening their academic year — some are extending spring break or considering ending their academic year early — also must get ED’s approval.

The NASFAA webinar addressed questions related to Federal Work-Study (FWS) requirements. For example, FWS students can continue to get paid for their scheduled work hours if the program is affected by closures. FWS students also can work remotely, if it’s an option.

There were some questions related to the student aid verification process, through which the federal government crosschecks the information families include on the federal student application with IRS information. It’s typical a cumbersome process, and there is some concern that students could have difficulty getting that information during the current crisis. ED hasn’t provided guidance on this yet, though NASFAA expects the department will address it.

Related article: ED, IRS working to simplify FAFSA form

NASFAA also noted that President Donald Trump said this week that he would offer some relief pertaining to student loans, such as waiving interest. Student aid administrators are awaiting written guidance from ED.

Visit www.nafsaa.org.covid19 for updated information. The site includes a recording of the webinar.

Addressing basic needs and more

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, on Monday introduced legislation similar to what Senate Democrats introduced last week. The Supporting Students in Response to Coronavirus Act (H.R. 6275) would provide more than $3 billion in emergency funding for early childhood education programs, K-12 schools and higher education institutions in response to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill would, in part, provide emergency grants to help students with basic needs, such as food, housing and health care. It also would exempt students from paying back Pell grants or repay student loans that were taken out for a disrupted term by providing a temporary waiver of so-called “Return of Title IV” rules.

Additionally, the bill would ease other financial aid rules related to satisfactory academic progress, Pell Grant lifetime eligibility and subsidized loans.

Seeking help from FCC

As colleges prepare to transition from previous in-person classes to online programs, a growing challenge is making sure all students have access to technology, including computers and the internet. The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition on Tuesday asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to leverage its resources to open broader access.

SHLB commended the federal agency for its work with private-sector companies to provide more access, but it should do more. For instance, it said the FCC could make emergency funding available for hotspot lending programs run by schools, libraries and other community organizations in areas where schools and libraries close.

Some colleges are not waiting and are developing their own plans to ensure students have computers and internet access needed to transition to online learning. In California, Foothill College established an emergency fund to provide up to $1,000 to students who need to loan laptops or purchase a wi-fi hotspot.

Students at the college have options, which range from discounted to free wifi access from local providers, but the college wanted to offer another alternative, said President Thuy Nguyen.

“We are making sure to support students who might normally suffer the most from this kind of emergency,” she said. Through its newly created one-stop Virtual Student Hub, the college is working directly with students and their faculty to make sure “they get wifi AND laptops for our virtual campus. More high touch,” Nguyen wrote in a message to CCDaily.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.