Regulatory Flexibilities, Addressing the COVID-19 Challenge, and Legislative Updates at FSA Training Conference

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

During the second day of Federal Student Aid’s (FSA) annual training conference, Department of Education (ED) officials highlighted regulatory flexibilities in the wake of the coronavirus and efforts to incorporate feedback from stakeholders in the last year, and included a legislative update on congressional action that could impact financial aid professionals. 

Diane Jones, principal deputy under secretary at ED, touted the department’s responsiveness to the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak back in March by administering a number of flexibilities to allow institutions of higher education to pivot to online learning.

“Without skipping a beat, all of you figured out how to continue serving your students in a way that protected them and your faculty and staff,” Jones said.

In addition to the transition to online learning, Jones said ED was responsive to the needs of student loan borrowers by using executive and agency action to implement a pause on payments and interest accrual on federally-held student loans — which is now extended through the end of the year — before implementation of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

However, Jones did not provide an update on any potential for an additional extension through a continued executive order or action by ED.

Jones further stressed the importance of the continued development and strengthening of the partnership between ED and higher education professionals, and said she was incredibly grateful for the work financial aid administrators have done to serve students during these challenging times. 

In terms of the regulatory process, Jones also provided a recap of recent developments in the rulemaking sphere by highlighting changes to accreditation agencies, the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant program and faith-based entities, distance learning regulations, changes to the gainful employment rule, as well as changes made to Title IX regulations.

These updates, according to Jones, signify that ED has made good on its promise to address regulatory burdens and that these actions “deliver on the promises that we have been making for several years.” 

“We heard you, we heard what you said about regulatory burden and we have tried to address it,” she said.

Jones also said that ED was tackling efforts to work more closely with students in improving loan repayment, since the department has better ways of reaching out to borrowers after they graduate than institutions do. 

On the loan repayment front, Jones highlighted a new tool being implemented to better oversee income-driven repayment plans, which she said needed oversight because ED was not confirming the income or family size of a borrower.

Jones also said ED anticipates greater utilization of professional judgements in the coming year due to changes in family income related to the pandemic. Such action will not trigger a program review since institutions are demonstrating a response to student needs.  

“We are listening, we have heard you,” Jones said. “We do want to be better partners — reach out to me and to us when you have concerns.”

In the legislative-focused session, Ian Foss, acting director of policy implementation and oversight at ED, provided an update on recently enacted and upcoming congressional activity and what potential impacts schools, families, and borrowers should anticipate.

For the law that provided spending levels for fiscal year 2020, Foss highlighted how funding levels impacted various student aid programs — like the Pell Grant program, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) program, and the Federal Work Study (FWS) program — along with implications for the budgeting of federal student aid programs, all of which according to Foss didn’t see significant changes from the previous spending cycle.

Congress is currently working through the appropriations process for fiscal year 2021 and currently faces a December 11 deadline to pass a spending bill. Congressional leaders have a number of options in dealing with the deadline, but it is currently unclear whether another continuing resolution or some sort of larger package will be implemented to stave off a government shutdown. 

Foss also gave an update on the implementation of the Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education Act (FUTURE) Act, which outgoing Senate Education Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) originally proposed. ED plans on beginning implementation this fall, and by the 2023-24 FAFSA cycle aims to launch its data-sharing tool shared with the IRS, but stressed that the timeline for implementation could change depending on external factors related to the ongoing pandemic.

Lastly, Foss highlighted developments around Alexander’s FAFSA simplification bill that could see movement during the current lame duck session.

If you wish to view some of the sessions from December 2, ED has provided video links to pre-recorded sessions for the Keynote Address - Helping Students and Institutions During Unprecedented Times.


Publication Date: 12/3/2020

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