Pa budget impasse threatens college aid

Joseph Oliveri | The Duquesne Duke A student visits the financial aid office.
Joseph Oliveri | The Duquesne Duke A student visits the financial aid office.
Joseph Oliveri | The Duquesne Duke
A student visits the financial aid office.

By Casey Chafin | The Duquesne Duke

Duquesne students who rely on state funds to pay their tuition have no choice but to wait and watch as Pennsylvania lawmakers fail to pass a state budget for the fifth consecutive month.

Duquesne students are lucky, however: the university has decided to credit their accounts until the state funds arrive, allowing them to attend school even as legislators in Harrisburg debate the details of a budget proposal.

Jim Zuzack, Duquesne’s associate director of financial aid, said students here have nothing to worry about.

“It’s already paid into the accounts,” Zuzack said. “Anybody that’s eligible, we have a state grant record on their financial aid, and we’ve already paid it into their accounts.

He said all Duquesne can do, much like everyone else in the state, is wait until the legislature and the governor can meet on and pass a budget.

“My gut feeling is that they’re going to come through with the funding,” he said. “This program has been out there for decades, and I can’t imagine that there would be no funding for it.”

Financial aid is usually distributed through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which has gone unfunded since the summer. PHEAA spokesman Keith New said the organization is also waiting to see what happens.

“We’re spectators to the process,” New said. “Once the budget is passed, and we expect it eventually to be passed, we’re positioned to process awards and get them out very quickly.”

He said many schools throughout the state have been taking the same approach as Duquesne.

“They’ve been crediting students’ accounts knowing that the dollars will be coming in when the budget is passed,” he said.

This is possible because PHEAA gives funding to each school, and not to the accounts of individual students.

New said that no matter happens with the state funding, students will still have full access to their federal student aid and loans.

“Some people are confused thinking that federal student loans are affected, and that is not the case,” he said. “This is only state funded student aid.”

He said the state-funded aid includes previously mentioned state grant program, as well as the PA Targeted Industry Program, and several smaller programs.

PHEAA is currently waiting on a $344.8 million appropriation under the latest budget proposal, but that amount could still go up or down in negotiations between Governor Wolf and the state legislature moving forward, according to New.