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Congress Attempts to Relieve Financial Burdens Of Students Displaced by Katrina

By Charles Pekow

College students whose educations were interrupted by Hurricane Katrina might get some relief from their student aid burden. Amidst the rush of disaster relief legislation going through Congress last month, the House of Representatives unanimously approved the Pell Grant Hurricane and Disaster Relief Act, which would allow the secretary of education to waive Pell Grant repayment for students impacted by natural disasters.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce included such relief in its Higher Education Act reauthorization currently awaiting action on the House floor.

The House also passed the companion Student Grant Hurricane and Disaster Relief Act, which would provide the same relief for students who took out other federal grants.

The Senate has not acted yet, though Sens. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and David Vitter, R-La., introduced the Federal Pell Grant Hurricane and Disaster Relief Act, which has been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Meanwhile, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., ranking member of the Education and the Workforce committee, has introduced the Katrina College Relief Act, which would provide six-month payment deferrals to student borrowers affected by the disaster. No interest would accrue for those six months. Current law allows three months forbearance but interest still accrues. The bill would also require the Department of Education to recalculate affected students’ needs and provide more assistance when warranted.

The department, meanwhile, has extended filing and reporting deadlines for schools and lenders affected by Katrina. The relief affects Perkins Loans, Federal Work-Study, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Federal Family Education Loans, Ford Federal Direct Loans, Pell Grants and Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership Programs.

Sept. 30 deadlines were moved to Dec. 1 for filing documents such as institutions’ Fiscal Operations Report for 2004-2005 and Application to Participate for 2006-2007. Institutions will also get 90 additional days to complete audits. Programs can apply to the Education Department for longer waivers if they show they can’t meet the extended deadlines.

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