Four Steps to Make 2021 Go Smoothly for Financial Aid Administrators

By Gregory Rinderle | February 1, 2021

If your financial aid department had a New Year’s resolution a year ago, it’s possible you tossed it out the window not all that long into a 2020 that veered wildly off-course. We can’t blame you for it, but from an institutional standpoint, it’s important to stay on track during a challenging time. Setting priorities and goals provides a focus that leads to results and success.

We certainly can’t promise what twists and turns the new year will bring, but no matter the circumstances, you can be sure there will be reporting due dates to hit and standards to meet. Read on for four steps your department can take right now to ensure 2021 gets off to a productive start.

1) Meet the first annual HEERF reporting due date — and prep for HEERF2

If you’ve been keeping pace with the other milestones for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, hopefully, you’ve already completed the first annual reporting. If you haven’t, the deadline has been extended to February 8. The report will include student and institutional disbursements incurred through December 31, 2020. You can find a primer on HEERF reporting here.

No sooner than you submit your reporting — or maybe before you do — you may find yourself applying for another round of HEERF grants, which were included in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSSA). This new round, referred to as HEERF2, is not uniformly similar to the first round of grants, however. Our experts recently produced a substantial summary of HEERF2’s application and implementation, along with commentary on key provisions.

2) Implement the new Distance Education and Innovation rules

Even before 2020 demanded thousands of students go off-campus, the number of students engaging in distance learning was growing, and ED was preparing regulations to better facilitate the innovations featured in these nontraditional programs. Late in 2020, the department released its final Distance Education and Innovation rules, which address several items relevant to financial aid departments in the areas of Return of Title IV Funds (R2T4), clock to credit hour conversions, Satisfactory Academic Progress and more.

These regulations take effect July 1, 2021, although institutions can implement any or all early.

3) Prepare for the Annual Student Loan Acknowledgement

Because of the events of last year, ED delayed the Annual Student Loan Acknowledgement — a new process mandating student and parent borrowers must view how much they owe in federal student loans and acknowledge they have seen it before receiving their first disbursement — for the 2020-21 award year, pushing it to the 2021-22 award year.

The delay should have given institutions more time to incorporate the acknowledgement into their processes. You should not count on another postponement for the coming award year, so if you have remaining questions about implementing the process, set up a time to chat with one of our experts.

4) Continue to prioritize cybersecurity

ED has spent recent years emphasizing the importance of protecting students’ private data, particularly by ensuring institutions meet obligations under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA). Late last year, the department made that point again by announcing it is finalizing the Campus Cybersecurity Program framework, which will soon begin a multi-year implementation. ED soon will begin a self-assessment to understand institutions’ readiness to comply with the set of basic security recommendations found in National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publication 800-171 Rev. 2 “Protecting Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) in Nonfederal Systems and Organizations.”

The GLBA, which requires institutions that participate in Title IV comply with standards to safeguard student information found in 16 CFR Part 314, remains important, as well. Institutions must have documentation to prove they are in compliance with the regulation, as auditors now will be looking for it. Learn more here.

Here’s to a better year

2020 was remarkable in many ways, most of which were not positive, so we’re pulling for an improved 2021. As we mentioned throughout this article, we are here to help financial aid departments and their institutions manage the ever-changing regulatory environment and find customized solutions to any issues they face. Schedule a call today.

Questions about the year ahead?

Reach out and schedule a call with one of our industry experts.