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So much joy is in the air! Here in Washington, the flowers and showers of spring are, as expected, sprinkling all around. And in the category of “unexpected spring surprises,” Congress has just completed action on the fiscal year 2024 (FY’24) government funding packages—long overdue, if you consider that the fiscal year actually started on October 1, 2023. While finishing appropriations bills late has become the norm, this year was particularly delayed, and not without impact on students who are pursuing postsecondary study. Coupled with troubles related to the U.S. Department of Education’s rollout of the new FAFSA, it has been a tough start to the year for higher education…especially for students.

The FY’24 budget and appropriations cycle was bound to be tough in light of the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA) of 2023 (HR3746), which was passed and signed last May in order to establish spending limits for FY’24 and FY’25. This put constraints on Appropriators and Congressional leaders as to how much money was available for them to support government programs. After passing four Continuing Resolutions (short-term funding bills that keep the government up and running) and using a new tiered approach where funding for packages of several bills would expire at different times, Congress sent two mini-bus spending packages to the White House in March that the President quickly signed before the government would have been forced to shut down.

Many students pursuing education beyond high school depend on federal financial aid programs to attend college. In fact, during the 2020-21 academic year, more than half of all full-time, first-time undergraduate students received federal financial aid, while the average grant award from all financial aid sources was just over $9,000. For so many students, these resources are “make or break” in helping them to access and afford post-secondary study.

There have been some real battles over financial aid funding over the past year. The House Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations Subcommittee considered their funding bill in July 2023: in that mark-up, two critically important programs, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG) and Federal Work Study (FWS), were zeroed out. Funded in FY’23 at $910 million and $1.23 billion respectively, these programs help students with demonstrated financial need afford college. Both programs provide support to campuses by formula and dollars that must be matched by the institutions receiving these campus-based aid funds. In turn, colleges and universities package these grants for students who need the resources. In 2020-21, more than 1.8 million students at 3,600 institutions received SEOG grants and in 2019-20, more than half a million students received FWS. At Jesuit colleges and universities, about a quarter of all students receive campus-based aid. The elimination of these programs would have been devastating for those students and so many others around the country.

The Senate Appropriations Committee took a different approach by supporting each program at levels close to the prior year during their consideration of the funding bill. Thankfully, in the final package, which was negotiated between leaders in Congress and the White House, funding for both programs was restored at last year’s levels.

The Pell Grant program is another program that AJCU pays close attention to and advocates for. In FY’24, the maximum Pell Grant was maintained at last year’s level. Given the dynamics of the FRA, a freeze was not unexpected, though it is the first time in a decade that the maximum Pell Grant was not increased. That program will now once again provide up to $7,395 per individual students with the greatest financial need to attend college.

Nearly 7 million students benefit from Pell, more than half of whom come from families with incomes under $20,000. At Jesuit colleges and universities, about 25% of our undergraduate student population receives a Pell Grant (the average amount is just over $5,000 per student). AJCU and other advocates continue to push for a doubling of the Pell Grant to $13,000. Even with the fiscal restraints imposed by the FRA, AJCU believes that an investment in Pell pays dividends to individuals and our nation many times over.

The high-stakes funding impasse was just one potential hurdle for high school seniors this spring. You have likely read about or personally experienced some of the extraordinary concern, pain and confusion around delays caused by the new FAFSA. The financial aid application process normally begins in October. But this year, forms were not available until the last day of December. Since that time, the FAFSA problems have grown, with glitches preventing students from completing the form, making correct calculations, correcting errors, or transferring family asset information to colleges and universities. What was intended to make the process of applying for and accessing federal student aid less complex and cumbersome has become a nightmare for students and their families, as well as colleges and universities.

What does this all of this mean for students? Many of them, newly admitted to colleges, have no information about how much federal aid they are eligible for and, in turn, how they will finance their college education. Compounding this uncertainty, in many cases, state and institutional grant aid awards are dependent on or connected to a student’s eligibility for federal aid. For first-generation students, as well as lower and middle-income students, this uncertainty could deter them from pursuing college or hinder their ability to determine which school would be most affordable for them. For returning students, they too could find re-enrollment a challenge without a full understanding of what federal support is available to them. To have students not pursue college, after so much persistence, commitment and drive throughout four years of high school, will be a loss for our country. Our students’ pursuit of higher education is a driver for our national economy, as well as their personal potential.

The AJCU Financial Aid Directors continue to wade through the delays and errors associated with the new FAFSA and continue to put students first while providing families with the best information they have at any given moment. AJCU will continue to engage with policy-makers to advocate for the greatest investments possible in federal student aid, while increasing awareness about the impact of the FAFSA delay on the enrollment of low and middle-income students. We seek to work with Congress and the White House to find solutions that ensure higher education remains possible for students to pursue their ambitions and aspirations.

By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU