The annual Federal Student Aid (FSA) Training Conference dove into its second day of programmatic offerings on Wednesday, with a number of detailed sessions highlighting policy updates and procedures that the Department of Education (ED) sought to engage with financial aid leaders.
In his keynote address, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona touted three significant challenges that ED was prioritizing: ensuring an equitable recovery from the pandemic, pushing for historic investments in college affordability, and implementing policies to help institutions of higher education commit to equity.
In response to the pandemic, Cardona touted the department’s efforts to inform postsecondary students of their eligibility for certain federal assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and access to broadband services.
“For too long, the answer to rising college costs has been larger loans. It’s unacceptable that student loans can leave students and families worse off than if they had never gone to college,” Cardona said. “Student loans can also be a major contributor to post-college inequalities, including exacerbating the racial wealth gap. This cannot continue.”
While he did not offer any commentary on ED’s potential to administer wide-scale debt cancellation for borrowers, Cardona did highlight the administration’s effort to take action on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program so the “program lives up to its promise” and targeted relief efforts to those eligible for relief.
“Institutional leaders must embrace long-term change. That means greater investments in evidence-based wraparound services that help students succeed at higher rates,” Cadrona said. “And it means evaluating longstanding institutional policies that block retention and completion for our most underserved students, such as enrollment and transcript holds for students with unpaid balances.”
While Congress continues to debate President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan — and possibly amend the text in the weeks ahead — Cardona said he was proud that the measure contains a $550 increase to the maximum Pell Grant award for students attending public and nonprofit schools, and make students enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program eligible to receive Title IV aid.
As the conference moved on to more specific topics, officials from FSA provided a presentation on updates to the verification process with an overview of how the agency has handled the annual review from 2013 to present day.
Traditionally, according to FSA, 30 percent of FAFSA filers are chosen for verification, but for the 2020 academic year FSA reduced that to roughly 20 percent in order to reduce documented burdens on students and institutions alike.
FSA also highlighted how the impact of the pandemic, with schools facing sharp enrollment declines, led to major verification changes, with the administration determining that institutions needed to allocate more resources to administering emergency relief aid and reduced the verification rate to effectively account for roughly 3-4 percent of FAFSA filers.
Going forward, FSA will determine how to adjust this metric and collect data to better understand how the flexibility was utilized and if these temporary measures could be beneficial to future cohorts and financial aid offices.
FSA officials also covered federal updates on changes to the FAFSA and implementation of the FUTURE Act. They specifically discussed a number of provisions that received early implementation, such as the SULA repeal and removal of questions concerning Selective Service and drug convictions.
While FAFSA simplification is meant to reduce the number of questions for filers, FSA did note that there would be additional questions concerning race, ethnicity, and gender, but that those questions would not impact a student's access to aid and would instead be data that ED would collect for internal use.
Also during the day’s session was a presentation focused on improving Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems (IPEDS) that reviewed Student Financial Aid Survey concepts and survey reporting changes under consideration to better align survey data across institutions and their reporting periods.
For those who have registered for the virtual conference, FSA has provided several resources, including handouts and slides from the ongoing sessions.
Publication Date: 12/2/2021