Without debt ceiling deal, colleges fear impact on financial aid - KAIT-Jonesboro, AR-News, weather, sports

Without debt ceiling deal, colleges fear impact on financial aid

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BATESVILLE, AR (KAIT) – Even if lawmakers in Washington reach a deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, the whole debate has made many school administrators question the cost to their students and staff.

The past 16 days and the potential threat of a government default have created a lot of disruptions, according to Deborah Frazier, the chancellor of UACCB, or the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville.

She worries that if lawmakers fail to reach a permanent solution, then fights could resume on these same issues in a few months – creating uncertainty about cuts to financial aid and other federal programs all over again.

"There are just so many uncertainties," Frazier said, "and that's not a very good environment to do your very best work in."

At every school, answers are important, but Frazier says UACCB has mostly gone without them the last two weeks. The government shutdown may have left only one staff member at the college furloughed, but it caused more than a few headaches on campus.

She says the school has not only dealt with a brief lapse in federal work-study funding for several students, but the state also made the senior staff members provide documentation on all federal funding.

"We have been on probably three conference calls that lasted over an hour with the senior administration stuck in this office trying to determine what documents we are to present," Frazier said. "If we need the documents, we've had to have directors ask for that documentation, so this disruption has been, I think, great."

She, however, is mainly concerned about what will happen if lawmakers fail to raise the country's borrowing limit – the so-called debt ceiling – and the country cannot pay its bills.

"If in fact the government goes off the fiscal cliff, that's totally uncharted water for us," Frazier said. "What will happen to our federal employees, our grant employees? What will happen with our students? Pell grants may be an uncertainty, student loans."

"About 78 percent of our students are on some type of financial aid," she added. "We have many first-generation students, non-traditional students, traditional-aged [students] trying to determine how this will affect them and giving answers to employees."

She fears UACCB might have to end some of its programs funded by federal grants that help students in need, like Career Pathways and TRiO.

"Our TRiO program would be truly affected because all of those individuals would have to be furloughed," Frazier explained. "They deal directly, one-on-one, with about 160 students in academic advising, in tutoring. That help would be gone. Truly, it is our students not only financially but academically how they would be affected by the fiscal default."

There are concerns, too, that a default would affect availability for financial aid, like student loans and Pell grants.

UACCB has already faced down the possibility of losing federal financial aid for its students once before. When the school's student loan default rate went above 30 percent, the government began breathing down the school's neck, threatening to pull all federal financial aid. The school reacted quickly, instituting some new financial counseling programs and forming a default task force. Preliminary numbers show that because of these measures, UACCB successfully got its student loan default rate down to 28 percent.

Frazier says the only ones that can erase the college's fears about losing financial aid are the lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"I am a product of the American dream. To have our country in such disarray, it's worrisome," Frazier said. "Can our Congressmen and Senators become the statesman that they need to be? That's the word we've kind of talked about today – where's that statesmanship?"

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