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Education Dept. Is Making It Harder For Colleges To Boost Student Aid During Crisis


The U.S. Department of Education is making it harder for colleges to reconsider and potentially increase financial aid for students. Now, that could mean some real problems for families who have lost jobs or income during this economic crisis. There was federal guidance from 2009 that encouraged colleges to do more to help students who were affected by the downturn. But the Department of Education appears to have shelved that guidance. NPR's Cory Turner has the exclusive. He's with us now. Hey, Cory.


KING: Before we get to the change that the Department of Education has made, can you tell me, what was it like before?

TURNER: Yeah. The standard financial aid process obviously starts with a student filling out an aid application, called the FAFSA. But here's the thing, the income information that they have to provide is already two years old. So many people have, obviously, lost jobs or income in the last several months.

And so for these folks, there is a process where students can basically ask their school for a do-over. Officially, they ask their campus aid administrator to exercise what's called professional judgment, which is really just a fancy way, Noel, of saying, please, reconsider how much aid you're giving me.

KING: All of which, if I am a parent or a student and my family's financial circumstances have changed, makes complete sense. I would imagine that schools get more requests like this when we're in a recession.

TURNER: Oh, absolutely. But there is also - most people don't realize - a big reason schools don't like doing this. There's always been this weird risk for colleges and universities that if they do too many of these aid reconsiderations, it could actually trigger a costly Ed Department investigation, basically, making sure that they're complying with federal law. So during the last big downturn in 2009, the Obama administration issued guidance that told colleges, look; we know people are hurting right now. Don't worry. We won't investigate you for doing a lot of these reconsiderations.

KING: And now here we are in 2020. And the Department of Education is saying what?

TURNER: Well, this is the question. So in March and April, campus aid administrators started realizing they're once again going to have a lot of these requests to reconsider aid because of the crisis. And so they started asking, is this old guidance still good? Are we protected if we do what we think is right? I spoke with one aid administrator, Rachelle Feldman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And she underlined just how important it is for schools to get this reassurance right now.

RACHELLE FELDMAN: I worry that without some specific guidance from the department saying, hey, we understand you're going to have a lot of these this year, that schools will be reluctant to help the very students who need the help the most.

TURNER: Now, here's the challenge, Noel. NPR has learned that late last month during a call with stakeholders, a top Ed Department official indicated that this guidance is no longer active. That is according to multiple sources familiar with the call. Online, you can find the guidance. It has been labeled for historical purposes only.

I went to the department. I asked to - I asked them to clarify their position. A spokesperson told me, simply, they are updating the issues presented by the guidance given the pandemic and resulting economic downturn. So while that seems to leave open the possibility that this guidance could be restored or revisited, aid administrators tell me, look; not knowing for sure right now could hurt a lot of students.

KING: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Thanks, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
Elissa Nadworny covers higher education and college access for NPR. She's led the NPR Ed team's multiplatform storytelling – incorporating radio, print, comics, photojournalism, and video into the coverage of education. In 2017, that work won an Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation. As an education reporter for NPR, she's covered many education topics, including new education research, chronic absenteeism, and some fun deep-dives into the most popular high school plays and musicals and the history behind a classroom skeleton.