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Illinois State University professor Andres Vidal-Gadea talks about how undergraduate students involved in research in his lab built a magnetic field box that simulates the fields on Mars. University officials are concerned about the impact of the partial federal government shutdown on research funding.

NORMAL — We all know what it's like to return from a weeklong vacation and confront a backlog of emails to answer. Now, imagine you are a furloughed federal employee returning to work after three weeks or four weeks (or more).

That's among the concerns of officials at colleges and universities as they wait for the federal government to resume full operation.

“The situation becomes more precarious every day, especially since no one knows how long the shutdown will last,” said Millikin University President Patrick White.

Functions related to student financial aid appear to be moving relatively smoothly now after a glitch related more to annual maintenance of the website than the federal shutdown, said Bridget Curl, Illinois State University's director of financial aid.

“It's not affecting disbursement” of student aid for the current school year, she said.

According to Josh Norman, associate vice president of enrollment management at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, federal financial aid for the 2018-19 school year was fully appropriated months ago and funding for things such as Pell Grants is mandatory.

“Other than complications with the verification process, EIU has no immediate concerns regarding students and their financial aid,” he said.

But there are concerns at ISU and elsewhere about what will happen if the shutdown continues.

“What we've seen in the past — and we've never had a shutdown this long before — it takes the agencies a good month just to clear their emails,” said Jason Wagoner, director of research and sponsored programs at ISU.

In fiscal year 2018, ISU received about $8.7 million in federal grant funding. While some grant-awarding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, are operating, others, such as the National Science Foundation, are part of the shutdown.

“We're checking it on a daily basis,” said Shireen Schrock, faculty grants manager at Illinois Wesleyan University that typically receives about $500,000 to $750,000 in federal grants. “We're trying to stay as close to the information as possible and hang in there like everybody else.”

At Millikin, some faculty members seeking National Science Foundation funding for the first time in years have pending requests totaling about $175,000, said spokesman Dane Lisser.

The website through which grant applications are submitted is operating, but there is no one to review the applications and no one to answer questions, said Wagoner.

Rob Rhykerd, chair of ISU's Department of Agriculture, said, “Faculty have dates on their calendars when grants are due,” but don't know if those will be changed, if programs will be continued or how long decisions will be delayed.

“The longer it goes on, the longer it will take to catch up,” said Schrock.

Another problem, noted Schrock and Rhykerd, is there's no one to contact if they need permission to modify how they are using money from existing grants.

ISU officials have talked about the possibility of delaying grant-funded purchases or travel, but at this point, the agencies are still allowing grant recipients to get reimbursed for expenses covered by the grants, said Wagoner.

That may change if the shutdown goes on much longer, he said. “It's wait and see right now.”

Wagoner said the shutdown “definitely will have an impact” on hiring students for grant-funded research in the summer if the situation isn't resolved.

But Millikin officials don't expect the shutdown to affect plans to pay students for research and related projects because they use money from institutional sources rather than the federal or state government.

As for student financial aid, Curl said, “We're not packaging any yet for next year.”

Usually students are notified in March what their aid package will be, she said.

“If this continues into late February, we may have some issues,” she said. “We could still go ahead and estimate.”

EIU officials said they had no immediate concerns regarding students and their financial aid and would begin packaging financial aid within the next 30 days — their normal time frame.

Asked how long it might be before major impacts are seen, Wagoner said, “That's the million-dollar question. … We hope cooler heads prevail in D.C.”

Noting that some parents and students are likely among the federal employees and contractors impacted by the shutdown, White said, “As these families dip into their savings, they will find it harder to support the education of their young people at schools across the state and country. That will produce hardship, uncertainty and difficulty in making plans for long-term investment in higher education.”

Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota

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Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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