Now that the federal government has officially shut down not only will the majority of employees from the likes of NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Commerce be furloughed, but higher education will also face the consequences that come along with a government shutdown. Even if only for a temporary amount of time, universities risk the threat of further cuts to funding for some financial aid programs and scientific research. The impact on students, colleges, faculty, and researchers will likely be minimal – at least at first – but there’s no way of predicting how long this government shutdown will last. The state of higher education could be more drastically affected by the government shutdown than expected.

Research Funding

The shutdown will close the majority of operations at the National Institutes of Health, which is the biggest supplier of federal money for research at universities across the U.S. Research at NIH’s main headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland is also due to be put on hold, including medical trials since no new patients will be able to be accepted, according to the Department of Health and Human Service’s contingency plans.

Thankfully the agency just finished off one of its grant award cycles, so researchers don’t have to fear losing out on funding from the NIH at the moment. The next round of grant applications aren’t due until October 5, with awards not expected to be given out until December or January, according to Carrie D. Wolinetz, president of United for Medical Research, so that should leave enough time for officials to catch up and ensure applications are reviewed in time for the deadline. As of right now, though, the agency will “not take any actions on grant applications or awards.”

Sally J. Rockey, the NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, did warn that grant recipients may have a difficult time gaining access to their money thanks to the shutdown, but that would be unusual. “That’s going to be sort of a bad-luck situation,” she said in a notice that went out last week.

The National Science Foundation is supposed to follow a procedure similar to the NIH’s, with individuals able to continue work on their awards but only “to the extent that doing so will not require federal staff intervention and that funds are available.” The agency added that “no payments will be made during the funding hiatus.”

Financial Student Aid

According the Department of Education’s contingency plan, the government shutdown will not impact the awarding of student aid nor the servicing of student loans – at least for now. Commercial student-loan servicers and other contractors will most likely have to wait to receive compensation, but they can continue to work for “some short period of time. However no new contracts will be awarded. Colleges that have received government grants can continue their work as well.

If the government shutdown lasts for more than a week, though, that’s where the real problems will become more apparent. It’s possible that such a length of time could “severely curtail the cash flow” to colleges with federal grants, the contingency plan reads.

As many Education Department staff members will be furloughed – more than 90 percent of employees to be exact – colleges may experience a delay in receiving grants later in the year. Especially considering the fact that if the shutdown lasts for a week or more, only 6 percent of employees will resume their roles to perform “essential” functions.

Prior to the government closing its doors for business, the Education Department released an updated plan Friday explaining that a shutdown would interfere with tasks necessary to carry out the federal aid system. However, the largest student aid programs would remain mostly unaffected.

“As a result of the permanent and multiyear appropriations, Pell Grants and [federal] student loans could continue as normal,” the Education Department said. “Staff and contractors associated with these areas will continue to work.”

Smaller financial programs will be hit harder, for they actually require Education Department employees in order to function. The contingency plan states that those who work for campus-based aid programs like Federal Work-Study will be furloughed.