'The office was dark': Government shutdown delays financial aid for some college students

Monica Kast

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As the government shutdown continues, some college students say they are having to estimate how much federal aid they'll get — and realizing they may receive less than they originally thought.

When completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, some students have found they need additional verification material from the IRS. However, the part of the IRS that allows them to access additional documents has been shut down. 

The Department of Education said Wednesday it would provide more flexible guidelines for institutions during the shutdown, allowing them to accept additional documents for verification. Students can now submit a signed copy of income tax returns or W-2 forms instead of originals, which may not be available from the IRS during the shutdown.

Haley Church, a senior at Johnson University outside Knoxville, Tennessee, is still waiting for her FAFSA to be processed because of the shutdown. Church got married in May, which meant she needed her 2016 tax documents, as well as her husband's. 

"There was a lot of stuff that I had to get that I didn't previously have to get as an independent student," Church said. 

Haley Church, a senior at Johnson University, said she could not retrieve tax information from the IRS during the government shutdown when filing her FAFSA. Church, pictured with her husband Brandon, said she worries she'll have to drop out if the aid she receives is less than what was estimated.

Church, who is in her last semester at Johnson, tried to get the documents through the IRS website, but the function was shut down. She also went to an IRS office. "The office was dark and there was no one there," she said. 

"I was told there was no way to access anything until the government reinstates," Church said. 

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Church was able to work with the financial aid office at Johnson and worked out an estimate of how much federal aid she will receive once the government reopens. Johnson University had 1,334 undergraduate students enrolled for the fall 2018 semester. 

"Not only did they help me with the academic, financial part of it, they encouraged me that we would figure something out," Church said of the financial aid office. 

Johnson University is celebrating 125 years as an institution with three days of events this week. Their Knoxville campus is pictured here.

However, Church said, "there's still a lot of risk." She fears that the aid she receives will be less than the original estimate. If that happens, Church said, she may have to drop out in her last semester and work full-time because she would be responsible for paying the difference. 

"There's the intense fear of working for four years to go into a human services field ... and not knowing if I can even work in my field if I don't graduate," Church said. 

Other universities say they're working with students. The University of Tennessee said it would support students to make sure their coursework isn't interrupted.

At Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, approximately 165 of the 10,000-plus students still need additional verification documents from the IRS.

Under normal circumstances those students would have been dropped from their classes, said Leigh Anne Touzeau, assistant vice president for enrollment services. Because of the shutdown, their spots were held.

With the new guidelines from the Department of Education, Touzeau said she hoped the issues would be resolved soon and the funds would be released. 

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: 'The office was dark': Government shutdown delays financial aid for some college students