Financial Aid Nightmare? Shutdown Messes with Some College Students

Financial Aid Nightmare? Shutdown Messes with Some College Students (The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. (Photo: The Bent Tree/Flickr Creative Commons))

Washington DCDylan Cowell, a first-semester student at Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, submitted his application for federal financial aid on Jan. 2. The government got back to him, asking for more tax information.

But because of the partial government shutdown, the 17-year-old said he couldn't get the tax documents he needed from the Internal Revenue Service in order to complete his aid application.

The IRS is one of many government departments affected by the shutdown, which began on Dec. 22, 2018. Thousands of IRS employees have been furloughed, but many are still working at the agency without pay.

Cowell explained he needs the financial aid to help him pay for his current spring semester tuition.

Despite assistance from a financial aid advisor at Southeast Tech, Cowell can only estimate what aid he's likely to receive from the government. For the time being, he's able to enroll in classes at the school, but worries the financial aid he'll ultimately be granted when the government reopens won't be enough. 

Even under normal circumstances, students sometimes receive less than they estimate they need in aid — but because of the government shutdown, there will be a longer delay for students like Cowell in knowing by just how much their aid might fall short.

“I’m hopeful the aid will come in, yes, as it sounds it probably will,” Cowell said. “It’s frustrating that this is happening because there is the chance that I could have to pay a few thousand extra dollars for my education.”

The impact of the government shutdown, nearing the end of its fourth week with no end in sight, has extended beyond federal workers and their families to some students like Cowell.

But most college students will receive their aid on time for this semester, since the U.S. Department of Education is fully funded for the 2018-19 school year.

Since Cowell first heard back about his financial aid application, the Department of Education has made it easier to get aid approved. They announced last week they'd allow students to submit a copy of their tax returns or a copy of their W-2s, for example, rather than requiring the originals which can't be obtained while the IRS is closed.

Cowell has since submitted additional documentation and is waiting to hear back from the DOE.

Some schools, like New York University, have issued public guidelines for students worried about not being able to obtain tax forms for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Other institutions have removed holds on student accounts so that students can register for classes despite not being able to pay tuition costs without federal aid. Incoming freshmen may face challenges applying for federal aid if the shutdown holds, but most due dates are later this spring.

Stephanie Blackburn, an Arizonan who is part of an online degree program with DeVry University, was told by the school that financial aid payments would be delayed by three to four weeks because DeVry is under new ownership. DeVry was sold to a new parent company in late 2017.

Blackburn, 27, said her grants and financial aid had not been affected by the sale in the past year, leading her to believe that the shutdown is partly to blame for the delay.

“It would only make sense that the government shutdown is the reason why,” Blackburn said.

Financial aid is usually paid out during the second week of classes, Blackburn said. She was planning to use some of the money from her student loan refund check to buy new tires for her car. Without the federal aid money, that’s not possible.

“It’s frustrating. … I was really hoping to have the money this coming week,” Blackburn said.

While awaiting more information about when she will receive her financial aid, Blackburn is irritated by politicians who don't realize the impact of their inability to reopen the government.

“I’m honestly just irritated because they [politicians] don’t realize they’re affecting so many people,” Blackburn said. “Especially the ones whose income is being affected.”

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