Students at the nation’s public and private colleges wouldn’t likely notice the effects of a government shutdown — at least not on campus.

The Department of Education released a one-page summary of how a federal shutdown would affect higher-education operations. A shutdown would furlough 4,150 of the 4,465 Education Department employees, it says. Many federal programs, including federal student aid, would continue, because they are mandated by law.

Institutions would temporarily lose the ability to disburse aid in several programs, including the federal Perkins Loan program, with 673,000 student borrowers; the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program, with about a million student recipients; and the Federal Work-Study Programs, affecting about 590,000 students.

In practical terms, though, the money would probably continue to flow. “A lot of the administration of student aid is handled by contractors, and the contractors have already been paid, so they will continue to work,” said Justin Hamilton, department spokesman.

Telephoning the Education Department with questions about all of this might prove difficult. The advisory warns that students seeking such intel “will have limited access to information.”

A lengthy shutdown could affect aid awards and even students’ ability to begin attending college in the 2011-12 academic year, the federal briefing states. The student aid year begins July 1, with some payment cycles beginning as early as May 1.

The Chronicle of Higher Education cites the academy’s experience in an earlier government shutdown, 15 years ago. The Chronicle reports:

During that 21-day shutdown, which spanned late 1995 and early 1996, federal contractors and servicers weren’t paid, and questions submitted to the Education Department went unanswered. New regulations were postponed, and federal audits and program reviews were suspended.

But three months after the shutdown ended, “any trace of it had pretty much disappeared—like water poured into sand,” said Terry W. Hartle, vice president for government and public affairs for the American Council on Education.

More from the Chronicle report:

In 1995, only two employees in the Office of Postsecondary Education were deemed “essential” by the department: David A. Longanecker, the assistant secretary for policy and planning, and his deputy, Maureen McLaughlin. Mr. Longanecker said he spent most of his time answering phones and telling students and financial-aid administrators that the department would have to get back to them. He also became chauffeur to the secretary of education at the time, Richard W. Riley, because the department’s drivers were furloughed.

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