In his opening remarks commencing the annual Federal Student Aid (FSA) Training Conference, Chief Operating Officer (COO) Richard Cordray praised the financial aid community for the work it does to help students and their families pursue the benefits of higher education, assisting them in navigating the complexities of paying for college.
Cordray noted that the virtual format — the second year in a row FSA has had to conduct a virtual conference due to the coronavirus pandemic — has brought with it some positives, notably the increased attendance.
"Attendance this year has remained very high, more than double the peak in-person numbers before the pandemic. It seems likely we will never go back solely to in-person sessions, but will explore at least a hybrid approach,” he said.
Speaking at the conference for the first time since assuming the COO role under the Biden administration, Cordray said financing of higher education is at an inflection point and detailed the three most pressing challenges facing FSA today: overhauling student loan servicing, implementing changes to improve the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, and preparing borrowers for student loan payments to restart next year after a nearly two-year hiatus.
“This is anything but a quiet time for us,” he said. “As is often the case, the federal student aid programs are facing an array of changes. These range from a constant process of evolution in FSA’s own operational approach to new legislative measures.”
Cordray also touched on progress FSA is making in implementing its NextGen overhaul, complete with technological upgrades, changes to borrower-facing front-end systems, and back-end infrastructure improvements.
Notably, Cordray also urged the financial aid community to push their states to make FAFSA completion a high school graduation requirement in an effort to address declining FAFSA completion and college enrollment figures.
In his warning signal to aid administrators Tuesday, Cordray also noted the Department of Education (ED) is seeing evidence of a decline in Pell Grant disbursements.
“This is a serious problem for all of us,” he said, adding that conference attendees should push “state officials — both legislators and education officials — to change state law so that it mandates FAFSA completion as a requirement for high school graduation.”
There are currently seven states that require FAFSA completion as a condition for high school graduation, Cordray noted, and he is hoping the financial aid community plays a role in advocating for more states to adopt the practice.
During the federal update session Thursday afternoon, FSA officials offered more details on some of the topics Cordray had previously addressed, including implementation of the FUTURE Act and the FAFSA Simplification Act, and the office’s work to rethink FAFSA verification following the temporary waiver issued for the 2021-22 award year amid the pandemic.
Despite calls from NASFAA and other higher education organizations to extend the waiver to the 2022-23 award year, officials reiterated Tuesday that verification is still required for students selected for the 2022-23 award year, though the possibility was left open as Annmarie Weisman, FSA’s deputy assistant secretary for policy, planning, and innovation, said any further flexibilities would be announced in a future publication.
Weisman also detailed how aid offices can use professional judgment (PJ) to help students, pointing to guidance issued by ED earlier in the year encouraging the use of PJ and reminding institutions of their ability to use documentation of unemployment to reduce or adjust to zero an unemployed individual’s income earned from work and adjusted gross income in the federal methodology formula.
"I want to emphasize and reassure you that we consider the PJ authority a tool that can and should be used whenever appropriate,” Weisman said.
Both Weisman and Cordray spoke about how impactful the FUTURE Act and the FAFSA Simplification Act will be in helping FSA achieve its goal of overhauling how FSA operates and administers federal student aid programs.
Weisman said the FAFSA Simplification Act will result in foundational changes to the need analysis formula, and will require a complete redesign and overhaul of FSA’s systems that support the application for federal student aid and the calculation of students’ eligibility for aid. FSA is in the process of that redesign and overhaul and will employ a delayed, phased implementation of the changes made to federal methodology and the FAFSA, with a full launch slated for the 2024-25 award year.
David Musser, director of policy innovation and dissemination at FSA, concluded the federal update by detailing FSA’s four-part plan to help borrowers resume making payments on their federal student loans next year when the payment pause comes to an end Jan. 31, 2022.
He also alerted financial aid administrators to be on the lookout for and resolve any potential instances of a $1 adjusted gross income (AGI) appearing on a student’s 2022-23 FAFSA, an issue FSA first brought attention to in March.
Publication Date: 12/1/2021