On Friday at midnight, the government shutdown beat the record for the longest government shutdown in history with an unprecedented 22 days.
The shutdown has now been 23 days in total, beginning on Dec. 22 and in response to President Donald Trump’s demand that Congress include $5.7 billion for “the wall” along the southern border. Trump is adamant the wall is needed to keep undocumented immigrants from entering the U.S. illegally. Democrats now have control of the U.S. House and do not agree with Trump and Republicans that a wall is necessary, rather citing it as being unessential and too expensive.
The shutdown is affecting many federal agencies, among those the FDA, which has postponed and halted some inspections. Vandalism has overtaken national parks, and scientific research has been stalled to an extent. Due to the shutdown, many federal workers are not getting paid.
But how does the shutdown affect universities, and private universities — like Lipscomb — in particular? Lipscomb receives $750,000 or more in Federal grant money in a fiscal year, so being a private university doesn’t make Lipscomb exempt from the effects of the shutdown.
This sum largely comes from students’ financial aid, grants used for scientific research, stipends for undergraduate and graduate students and community outreach, such as the suicide prevention grant Lipscomb had for the counseling center and the federal grant that helps support the IDEAL program.
But Tiffany Summers, Lipscomb’s director of student aid, said there really isn’t any reason for Lipscomb students to worry about the status of their financial aid due to the shutdown, at least right now.
“There’s not any issues with that [student scholarships],” Summers said. “…Pell grant, everything like that should not be impacted at all, as far as receiving the funds. They [Department of Education] have already approved the Pell Grant…so we probably would be OK for the next school year. Maybe if it [the government shutdown] was another year, we would be in trouble.
“All of our guidance that we’re getting from the Department of Education has said that everything is fine; there is no impact.”
However, students who were selected for verification may run into some issues due to the IRS being down due to the shutdown. When students complete their FAFSA each year, a select few may be selected for verification, which is essentially like an audit. This process includes submitting tax return transcripts. Therefore, due to the IRS being inactive due to the shutdown, this can cause some students to run into issues getting their financial aid.
“Where you may see a slight impact is on students that are in the current year, 18-19, that are selected for verification and haven’t completed it,” Summers said. “There’s only certain things they can do to get that completed, so they should probably check with us if they haven’t done that. Most students have it completed, but there’s some that could be impacted if they are selected for verification for 2019-20…if they are having a delay in things, that’s OK. As long as the shutdown doesn’t last until August, we should be fine.”
However, Summers added that there should not be an impact on students simply filing their FAFSA — the issue only comes if students had been selected for verification.
Examples of federal grants at Lipscomb include the Pell Grant, Federal Work Study and SEOG. As far as federal work study goes, Summers said students doing federal work study should not be affected either since it’s already fully funded through the Department of Education.
“If I were to tell students what is being impacted by the shutdown, it’s not impacting their aid in any way this semester,” Summers said. “It should not impact it for the foreseeable future. The only piece where it’s more just a hindrance…would be for verification…if they have any questions about it, they should talk to us, specifically the students selected for verification.”
In terms of scientific research grants, the shutdown would have to go on for at least “three months,” according to Carol Lusk, Lipscomb Director of Academic Finance.
“Probably in about three months for grant purposes [before Lipscomb began to feel the affects of the shutdown],” Lusk said. “It wouldn’t be fun from a cash-flow perspective — we like to keep the cash coming in — but as an institution we can manage…if it [the government shutdown] tracks on months, there would be bigger issues [than worrying about grants].”
The research grants Lipscomb does currently receive include a pharmaceutical NIH research grant that was granted for five years (the fifth year being 2019) for $600,000 over the five years and $110,000 NSF engineering for one year only. In addition to these standalone grants, Lipscomb has several “sub” awards where Vanderbilt has made Lipscomb a sub awardee of its federal research grants. In total, Lipscomb has seven federal grants.
Even though Lipscomb is a private university, a few employees receive pay through federal funding. Director of Grant Services Robyn Saakian said that employees of Lipscomb may receive pay for their research work if they are considered the “principal investigator” of a grant, so a percentage of their work is typically protected by the grant.
“For example, Dr. Jackson, in pharmaceutical sciences, who has this NIH grant — the purpose of this NIH grant is to protect a percentage of her time — the university had to say ‘Yes, we propose that we’ll let your grant pay for a percentage of her time for these five years, so she can focus on her research and develop herself as a better researcher and academic,'” Saakian said.
Saakian added that students in engineering have scholarships funded by federal money, and there are graduate-level stipends for students in psychology and counseling.
“That’s one of those grants [engineering] that’s on a reimbursement basis, so we award, and then we bill the government basically,” Saakian said. “We say, ‘We’ve awarded this much, so reimburse us.'”
Saakian noted that what has already been awarded to students would not be taken away.
“The worst-case scenario would be…not awarding [future] scholarships to students, but also [not] having student participation in certain research projects. We’d have to put on hold anything a grant funds, which could be any number of things, but those are two specific examples if we were not getting payment in a timely fashion from the government.
“But I believe that everything up to that point would be protected, and I even believe that if that had been promised to a student, Lipscomb would figure out how to make that right,” Saakian added.
Other grants within the “community outreach” portion of Lipscomb’s federal funding include the IDEAL program. However, Saakian noted that IDEAL is not solely funded through federal dollars, so the shutdown would have to last a few months, and funding would have to completely cease before the university would feel the effects of it.
“The fact that that grant is not the sole funding for that program [IDEAL]…it would have to be at least three or four months before we would feel it,” Saakian said. “Because, assuming for most grants we’re billing on a quarterly basis — we wouldn’t really feel it until we didn’t get that quarterly payment back to reimburse ourselves.”
Although a government shutdown lasting for three months would be unprecedented, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters President Trump has threatened to keep the government closed for “months or even years.”