Eye on Education

U.S. Department of Education Announcements

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U.S. Department of Education Announcements

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced benefits, outreach, flexibilities and guidance to assist students, federal student aid borrowers and institutions of higher education. 

First, the Department issued guidance regarding the use of funds received under the Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER) Fund grant program. This guidance reflects a change in the agency’s position, which previously only allowed funds received under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act, 2021, to be used for costs incurred on or after December 27, 2020, the date of the law’s enactment. Now, institutions may use HEER Fund grants to reimburse themselves for lost revenue and expenses incurred back to March 13, 2020, the start of the COVID-19 national emergency. Moreover, the agency is supplementing this change of interpretation with additional guidance about how grantees may calculate and charge “lost revenue” to HEER Fund grants and releasing additional Frequently Asked Questions for Public and Private Non-profit Institution Grants and Proprietary Institution Grant Funds for Students. 

Second, the Department informed institutions they can conduct direct outreach to students who may meet temporarily expanded eligibility criteria for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). (The Department’s Federal Student Aid [FSA] office has also begun its own direct outreach to students.)  Under regular SNAP eligibility requirements, students enrolled at least half-time in an institution are typically ineligible for benefits, unless they meet certain specific exemptions. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, temporarily expands eligibility to include students who (1) are eligible to participate in state or federal financed work-study during the regular academic year, as determined by the institution, or (2) have an expected family contribution of 0 in the current academic year (including students who are eligible for a maximum Pell Grant). (Note: More information is posted on the SNAP benefits for students web page.)

Third, the agency announced relief  for certain federal student aid borrowers who have received loan discharges due to total and permanent disability. This action will help more than 230,000 borrowers. Over 41,000 of these borrowers – who had $1.3 billion in loans reinstated – will get their discharges back, have any payments made during the COVID-19 national emergency refunded, and will not be asked to submit earnings documents. The other 190,000 borrowers who remain in the monitoring period will not be asked to submit earnings documentation. These income monitoring requirements are waived for the duration of the emergency. 

Fourth, the agency announced an expansion of the pause on federal student loan interest and collections to all defaulted loans in the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which will help more than one million additional borrowers burdened by debt during the COVID-19 national emergency. This is retroactive to March 13, 2020. The Department will work to return any tax refunds seized or wages garnished over the past year automatically. Also, borrowers who made voluntary payments on any of these loans during the past year may request a refund of those amounts. Plus, any of these loans that went into default this past year will be returned to good standing. 

Note: FSA also unveiled a new portal for institutions and partners, designed to streamline and modernize user experiences, in part by centralizing information. 


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