By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter
New features and functions of Federal Student Aid’s (FSA) soon-to-be-released Partner Connect portal were detailed Wednesday afternoon during the second day of the annual training conference.
The new portal, which is set to go live in March 2021, is meant to streamline existing operations and put them all in one place for institutions, loan servicers, state agencies, and essentially anyone interacting with FSA. The portal serves as the latest installment of FSA’s NextGen initiative and was first unveiled by Gen. Mark Brown, FSA’s chief operating officer, at the launch of the training conference on Tuesday.
"We heard you loud and clear and have used all of this information to inform a clear path forward and a new vision for FSA’s relationship with our schools and other partners,” said Robin Minor, FSA’s deputy chief operating officer.
Minor said her prior experience as a financial aid administrator gave her and her team perspective on the challenges aid offices face and how to alleviate obstacles and inconveniences that currently exist within the system.
She detailed challenges such as multiple websites, disjointed customer service, significant wait times, and more. Minor said the solutions to the existing problems were formulated through over a dozen focus groups composed of financial aid administrators, multiple surveys, and over 100 hours of interviews.
A modernized website and interface will serve as a “front door for all partner interactions” and will help eliminate manual and paper-based processes.
Under the new portal, the Information for Financial Aid Professionals (IFAP) website will now be known as the Knowledge Center, with advanced search functions and more intuitive navigation functions.
A redesigned, interactive FSA Handbook will feature search capabilities and allow users to bookmark and save items, along with shareable links.
“We talked to so many of you about how often you use the FSA handbook, and how important of a tool it is in your daily work. And you told us that it was hard to use and hard to search,” said senior program manager Shamarli Kollock.
Financial aid administrators will also be able view exactly what students see when they visit the StudentAid.gov website, as well as comprehensive account information on the student, parent, or borrower profile page. Additionally, a central dashboard for users will provide notifications and alerts for system outages, among other features.
Officials from FSA and the Department of Education (ED) on Wednesday also provided an update on how the ongoing pandemic impacted higher education and the policy and guidance that ensued.
Greg Martin, director of the policy development group at ED, provided an overview of the policy guidance as it related to COVID-19, displaying a timeline of all the guidance ED has released and updated over the past eight months and counting.
Martin also outlined the certification agreements institutions had to sign to receive funds from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which was created as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Institutions, Martin reminded, are expected to spend the funds they draw within one year of the award date. ED recently released a new portal that provides information on how states and institutions of higher education are utilizing funds, with higher education institutions spending about 64% of the $14 billion as of the end of September.
While it was a source of controversy in the spring, Martin reiterated that only students who are Title IV-eligible are able to receive emergency aid grants made available through the HEERF.
Martin, along with FSA’s Director of Policy Innovation and Dissemination David Musser, then outlined the wide array of waivers and flexibilities for students and institutions provided under the CARES Act, including the extension of several deadlines, offering leeway for institutions transitioning to distance education, changing academic calendars, and verification, among others.
Publication Date: 12/3/2020