Education department gives colleges more flexibility to verify students’ financial information

The U.S. Department of Education recently released long-awaited guidance giving colleges more flexibility in verifying the financial information of students seeking federal student aid. The changes took effect immediately and apply to the 2018-19 and 2019-20 cycles for processing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). First announced in November 2018, the updates were met with enthusiasm among financial-aid officers and college access advocates, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Specifically, the guidance allows students who submit the FAFSA and are flagged for income verification to demonstrate their family income using signed tax returns. Previously, students were required to obtain tax transcripts from the IRS, a process that can take weeks. The changes also provides alternative options for non-tax filers.

Changes that couldn’t come soon enough

The new guidance is especially timely, Inside Higher Ed notes, given recent technical issues at the IRS that have rendered the online tax transcript system inaccessible and prevented students from obtaining the necessary paperwork. Some have speculated that the disruptions stem from the ongoing partial government shutdown, under which the IRS has furloughed employees. However, agency officials attributed the issues to routine maintenance.

Regardless, “even on a good day, when everything is working right at IRS, obtaining tax transcripts is an arduous and difficult process,” Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators told Inside Higher Ed. And because lower-income students are especially likely to be flagged for income verification, strict requirements put large hurdles in front of the students who need financial aid the most.

College access advocates say they hope the guidance is just the first step in a larger effort to ease students’ income verification burden, and thus reduce barriers to higher education. “Ultimately the adoption of these guidelines is good for students, and as a byproduct, college access collectively,” said Sara Urquidez, executive director of the Dallas-based Academic Success Program.

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