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Shutdown Suspends College Search Sites, but Campuses Affected Little

The message from the federal government to prospective college students has been clear: Be an informed consumer. Shop around for value.

But the U.S. Department of Education websites to help students navigate the college search process — College Navigator, College Affordability and Transparency Center, and College Scorecard — went dark Oct. 1 with the federal government shutdown.

When students sign on, they are met with this message: "Due to a lapse of appropriations and the partial shutdown of the Federal Government, the systems that host collegecost.ed.gov have been shut down. Services will be restored as soon as a continuing resolution to provide funding has been enacted."

The administration made a huge effort to give families more information about a range of colleges through these tools to counter the weight given to rankings, such as those by U.S. News and World Report  that focus on more elite schools, said David Bergeron, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.

"It's tragic that it's not available at a this time when high school students are thinking about where they want to visit and apply to college," he said. The College Scorecard site alone gets more than a million hits a month, and this period would be considered peak as students plan campus visits around Columbus Day and Veteran's Day, said Bergeron.

Suspension of these services is one of many affected by inability of Congress to reach a budget deal. (For a complete wrap-up on the impact of the shutdown on education programs, see the Politics K-12 blog.)

Still, experts say, the shutdown is having little immediate impact on the flow of federal money or support to higher education and high schools.

Federal aid to students through Pell Grants, work study, and loans will continue to flow. "Day-to-day processing is automated or run by third-party contracts and are still in operation," said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Students Financial Aid Administrators. Colleges can draw down funds, and students can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

But when students need additional information or services, they may encounter issues, said Draeger. For instance, in filling out a financial aid application if students need a tax document from the IRS or registration for the Selective Service, those require manual processes that are not avaialble.

"The longer the government stays closed, the higher the risk of there being disruption," he said. "If something crashes or goes wrong, who do we talk to about it? That risk grows."

Draeger hears a general sense of frustration among financial aid administrators about the shutdown, but more worry over the upcoming battle to raise the debt ceiling. Failure to raise the debt ceiling could create a cash-flow issue where departments have to pick and choose what bills to pay, he said.

Becky Simmons, assistant vice president for government relations for the American Council on Education, is also hearing concern from members, who are college and university leaders, that there is a gradual acceptance of the shutdown as being a normal way of doing business. While the shutdown is its own event and not linked to other legislation, Simmons said that the inability of lawmakers to clear out other major bills worries the higher education community about the future of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

"Campuses are contemplating how to convey this to students," said Simmons. "There is some talk to turn this into a teachable moment."

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