ED Review (10/01/21)

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October 1, 2021



The 2022-23 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) launched at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time.  New and returning students who plan to attend college between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023, should complete the FAFSA as soon as possible.  To assist students and parents in the process, the Department’s Federal Student Aid (FSA) office has been sharing tips @FAFSA, including “7 Things You Need Before Filling Out the FAFSA Form” and “8 Steps to Completing the FAFSA Form.” 

FSA continues to take steps to make it easier to complete and submit the FAFSA form.  For example:

  • students’ prior drug convictions, as well as registration status with Selective Service, no longer affect their federal student aid eligibility;
  • FAFSA.gov is even easier to navigate to get help and information, with an entirely new look and feel; and
  • in most states, applicants only see the questions on the FAFSA form that pertain to them.

Students and parents may complete the FAFSA form online at FAFSA.gov and through the myStudentAid mobile application. 

In related news, the Department released the latest federal student loan cohort default rate, which decreased (from 9.7% to 7.3%) for students who entered repayment between fiscal years 2017 and 2018 and subsequently defaulted before September 30, 2020.  This new cohort default rate represents the lowest national rate since the three-year rate was first released in 2012.  Schools with high default rates may lose their eligibility to participate in federal student aid programs. 


Bus Tour Stop 

Last week (September 20-24), Secretary Cardona visited five Midwest states during his “Return to School Road Trip,” showcasing students and communities safely returning to in-person instruction.  From pre-kindergarten through higher education, bus tour stops spotlighted excitement and preparedness for safe in-person learning this fall (ICYMI video). 

On Monday, the Secretary was in Wisconsin, touring Locust Lane Elementary School in Eau Claire (photos and shout out video).  Later, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he met with students in the special education teaching program and Latinx students and attended a public service fair providing students of all majors with the opportunity to connect with local, state, and national non-profit agencies.  That evening, he invited local educators to join him for a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game (recap video). 

On Tuesday, the Secretary was in Illinois, touring Walter R. Sundling Junior High School in Palatine (photos 1 and 2) and announcing the 2021 National Blue Ribbon Schools (see below).  Then, joined by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, he visited a state health center offering COVID-19 vaccinations.  He and Dr. Murthy also dropped by Chicago State University for a roundtable discussion on the future of predominantly black institutions and equity in education (recap tweet). 

On Wednesday, the Secretary was in Indiana and Ohio.  First, he toured Madison STEAM Academy in South Bend, Indiana.  Next, he visited Penta Career Center in Perrysville, Ohio.  Then, he met with students involved in two after-school organizations at Waite High School in Toledo, Ohio (recap video). 

That day, the Department also took over the White House Twitter account from the road. 

On Thursday, the Secretary spent the first of two days in Michigan.  He started at Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College in Mount Pleasant, participating in a welcome ceremony, visiting classes and students, and trying his hand at spear throwing.  Later, he was in Lansing for a tour of a local early learning program.  That evening, he joined with Reading is Fundamental in Detroit for a family reading event (recap video). 

Finally, on Friday, the Secretary wrapped in Michigan, engaging with students at Plymouth High School in Canton and joining special guest First Lady Dr. Jill Biden for a visit to Oakland Community College’s Royal Oak campus to discuss President Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda (recap video). 

In addition, Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten and a team of Department senior staff hosted dozens of community conversations with students, educators, and community leaders along the route -- “learning how we can work better together.” 


National Blue Ribbon Schools 

On his road trip, at awardee Walter R. Sundling Junior High School, Secretary Cardona announced 325 schools as 2021 National Blue Ribbon Schools (videos 1 and 2).  This program honors public and private elementary, middle, and high schools where students perform at the highest levels or where progress is being made on closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.  Chief State School Officers nominate public schools.  The Council for American Private Education nominates private schools.  All schools will be celebrated at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., November 4 and 5.  In its 39-year history, the program has bestowed this coveted award on more than 9,000 schools (press release).  (Note: School profiles and applications are posted online.) 

Also, the Secretary praised the 2021 President’s Education Awards Program (PEAP) recipients, saluting elementary, middle, and high school graduates on their educational accomplishments.  Since 1983, PEAP has bestowed individual recognition from the President to students whose outstanding efforts have enabled them to meet challenging standards of excellence.  School principals determine the number of qualifying students based on selection criteria and verify orders for awards.  There is no limit, as long as students meet the criteria.  Students get a certificate and congratulatory letter signed by the President and the Secretary of Education.  This year, nearly 1.85 million students from more than 18,750 schools were recognized under PEAP (press release).  (Note: A list of PEAP participating schools by state and year is posted online.) 

Moreover, this week, representatives from the 2021 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools, District Sustainability Awardees, and Postsecondary Sustainability Awardees were celebrated in a special ceremony at the Department (blog post and video). 


On September 23, the Department awarded the first grant under the Project to Support America’s Families and Educators (SAFE) program: $147,719 to the School Board of Alachua County, Florida (Secretary’s call video).  Project SAFE was announced as part of the President’s COVID-19 Action Plan to combat the virus and safely reopen schools for in-person learning.  School districts may apply for a grant to restore funding withheld by state leaders -- including salaries for school board members or superintendents who have had their pay cut -- when they implemented strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 consistent with science-based guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

On September 28, the Department awarded the second such grant: $420,957 to the School Board of Broward County, Florida. 

The agency’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) also opened directed investigations in two additional states -- Florida and Texas -- exploring whether state prohibitions on universal indoor masking discriminate against students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness by COVID-19 by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education. 


Before the end of the federal fiscal year (September 30), the Department awarded a significant number of competitive grant awards. 

For example, last week, the agency awarded $40 million to a new cohort of Promise Neighborhood grantees across seven states.  This program is intended to improve academic and developmental outcomes for children living in communities of concentrated poverty.  Grantees’ applications proposed pipelines of programs and services developed specifically for the students in their neighborhood. 

Also last week, the agency’s Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) announced it is on track to award more than 5,100 grants totaling around $2.6 billion, to new and existing grantees.  Grants provided under these programs will directly serve more than 1.3 million students and millions more attending schools with approved projects.  The programs are diverse and unique but share the same objective -- to address challenges that impede students’ postsecondary opportunity and success. 

This week, the agency awarded 68 grants totaling around $186 million under the Alaska Native Education (ANE) and Native Hawaiian Education (NHE) programs.  ANE grants were made to organizations located in Alaska that are governed predominately by Alaska Natives and support innovative projects that address the unique educational needs of Alaska Native children and adults.  Similarly, NHE grants were made to organizations with experience in developing or operating programs in the Native Hawaiian language that address a significant need for Native Hawaiians and supplement and expand education programs. 

Separately, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened a new application filling window for schools and libraries to request funding from the roughly $2 billion in program funds remaining for connected devices and broadband connections for off-campus use by students, school staff, and library patrons for the 2021-22 school year. 


  • President Biden signed into law a Continuing Resolution (CR), extending funding for education programs and other parts of the federal budget at Fiscal Year 2021 levels through December 3, 2021.
  • The CDC recently released three studies that highlight the importance of layered prevention strategies, including universal masking, to stop the spread of COVID-19 and help minimize disruptions to school operations for safe in-person learning.  These studies found that school districts without a universal masking policy were more likely to have outbreaks.  Nationwide, counties without a masking requirement saw the number of pediatric COVID-19 cases increase twice as quickly during the same period.
  • Development and Implementation of Individualized Education Programs in the Least Restrictive Environment under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)” is the second in a series of questions and answers from the Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) on ensuring children with disabilities and their families have successful early intervention and educational experiences in the 2021-22 school year.
  • FSA Chief Operating Officer Rich Cordray issued a statement regarding federal loan servicers.
  • The Digital Literacy Accelerator calls upon interested participants to design, prototype, pilot, and refine an intervention aimed at helping students and adults learn crucial skills related to strengthening digital literacy, particularly around civil discourse and identifying and combatting misinformation.  Each team will have a chance to win a minimum of $2,000 in prize money.  Applications are due by October 7.
  • Calling data scientists!  The Open Data Platform (ODP) is a one-stop shop for agency data.  Watch the ODP explainer video and start exploring #OpenData
  • The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), launched an automated scoring challenge -- an open competition for members of the natural language processing community to apply their skills to score a sample of NAEP reading items.
  • The Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance Center released a new video outlining its free resources, tools, training, and support services. 


“Last week, I visited five states and 11 cities during the Department’s Return to School Road Trip.  I saw sheer joy -- the joy that students and educators feel about being back together [and] learning in-person.  My team and I saw students reconnecting with their friends in band practice, on the basketball court, in the campus dining hall, and in their classrooms.  The Biden Administration has worked hard to help make that a reality.  Schools are the most effective means of ensuring students receive the academic, social-emotional, and mental health supports that they need to succeed….  While we must stay vigilant, I am proud to say that, despite an increase in a variant of COVID, America is back to school.” 

-- Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (9/30/21), from his opening statement during testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee on school reopening during COVID-19 (video) 


Among other education-related observations, October is National Principals MonthLearning Disabilities Awareness Month and National Disability Employment Awareness Month, National Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month and National Youth Substance Use Prevention Month, Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and National Arts and Humanities Month. 

The Department’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) briefing series will continue on October 15, 2-3:30 p.m. ET.  The topic: Data Literacy.  Anyone may watch live or the archived session.  (Note: For previous briefings, visit the agency’s STEM landing page.) 

FSA will host a free Federal Financial Aid Virtual Bootcamp on October 19 and 21.  This bootcamp is ideal for students, parents, school counselors, college access professionals, college and career coaches, and other members of the financial aid community.  Attendees may expect to learn about resources to help navigate through the FAFSA and financial aid process, how to avoid student scams, and student loan repayment options, including information to help prepare for return to repayment as the forbearance period comes to an end. 

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