FAFSA: Completions decline, verification temporarily relaxed

This year’s graduating high school seniors completed 4.8 percent fewer Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSAs) than students in the Class of 2020, according to a new report from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN). As of July 2, approximately 53 percent of the Class of 2021 had filed the FAFSA.

The drop in FAFSA completions—considered a strong indicator of who will actually enroll in college—was most pronounced among low-income students and students of color. FAFSA completions fell by 6.5 percent among graduates of Title I-eligible public schools, those with high concentrations of low-income families; non-Title I schools saw a 3.7 percent dip. FAFSA completions from high schools where more than half of students identify as Black or Latinx fell by 8.1 percent. Schools with a smaller percentage of Black and Latinx students, meanwhile, posted a 2.2 percent decrease.

The latest numbers bear out NCAN’s warnings from late 2020, when the organization flagged an “alarming” drop in FAFSA filings. “We warned that FAFSA completion would be bad because we knew it would be bad, and in the end: it’s bad,” Bill DeBaun, NCAN’s director of data and evaluation, said in a statement.

Education officials temporarily dial back verification

Students who complete the FAFSA, however, may encounter fewer hurdles this application cycle. The U.S. Department of Education has announced that, for the 2021-22 award year, it will “focus aid verification on identity theft and fraud…, significantly reducing other barriers that have prevented students most in need from accessing critical financial aid funds.”

Although it remains unclear what percentage of applications will ultimately be selected for verification, college access advocates applauded the decision. “This change is great news for students and for those who support them,” Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy for NCAN, said. “Students from low-income backgrounds who should be receiving need-based aid will be able to access that aid without having to jump through additional hoops to get it.”

Reducing the administrative burden associated with verification also will help schools and counselors dedicate more time to supporting students’ success, which “is especially important as we seek to build back from historic college enrollment drops of over 10 percent for students from low-income backgrounds,” added NCAN Executive Director Kim Cook.

Addressing a key access hurdle

Created to prevent fraud in the federal aid system, the verification process asks a portion of FAFSA filers to verify the accuracy of information submitted in their application. Critics of the approach have long said the additional documentation burden disproportionately creates access barriers for students from low-income households and other backgrounds underrepresented in higher education.

One Washington Post analysis from earlier this year, for instance, showed that students in majority-Black and Latinx neighborhoods are asked to verify the accuracy of information submitted in their FAFSA far more often than students in majority-white communities. That verification process, in turn, risks deterring students of color. Resulting delays in FAFSA approval also may lower students’ chances of securing crucial aid, some of which is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Federal officials in December 2020 said they are working to decrease the share of applications selected for verification, in part by using machine learning to be more targeted. The department verified 22 percent of applications during the last two FAFSA cycles, down from a high of 38 percent in 2011-12.

In announcing the new, temporary verification relief, officials reiterated their interest in longer-term improvements. In a news release, Federal Student Aid Chief Operating Officer Richard Cordray said the division would continue to explore opportunities “to make the verification process more equitable while still preventing fraud.”

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