The federal government should make better use of existing data and limit which students are asked to verify the accuracy of information submitted in their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a new report recommends. Published by the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), the paper explores the impact of FAFSA verification on students and college administrators and outlines several opportunities for the government to make the process less burdensome for all involved.
Verification a key access hurdle
Intended to prevent fraud in the federal aid system, the verification process has come under scrutiny for disproportionately creating college access barriers for low-income students and those from Black and Latinx communities. Students asked to verify their FAFSA information may need to complete additional forms, track down documents, or obtain information from former employers and noncustodial parents—tasks that risk deterring students who are already underrepresented in higher education, The Chronicle of Higher Education notes.
The new report estimates that approximately 7.2 percent of students selected for verification will not receive federal aid because they are unable to complete the process. Even just delaying students’ FAFSA approval can lower their chances of securing crucial federal, state, and institutional aid, some of which is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
The U.S. Department of Education has taken steps to dial back verification. Around 17 percent of filers for the first three quarters of the 2021-22 cycle were selected for verification, down from as much as 38 percent of filers during certain cycles. Amid the pandemic, federal officials also have suspended some types of verification for the 2021-22 award year.
Making better use of available data
To consider what might improve the verification process, NCAN and NASFAA invited financial aid administrators and college access and success advisers to participate in online surveys and listening sessions. Two solutions received especially positive responses: better leveraging existing federal data and modifying the algorithms used to select students for verification.
Enabling the Internal Revenue Service to directly share data with the Education Department for all FAFSA filers was an “overwhelmingly popular” solution, the report says. That will be possible through the implementation of the FUTURE Act and FAFSA Simplification Act, which won’t take place until the 2024-25 FAFSA application cycle.
More carefully targeting verification requests
The responses also recommended fine-tuning the algorithms used to select applications for verification—and focusing requests on filers whose expected family contribution (EFC) is most likely to change. In one NCAN study, more than 70 percent of all students selected for verification ultimately had no change to their Pell Grant amount.
To focus on applications that are most likely to contain errors, the report recommends excluding from verification filers who port over information directly from the IRS, as well as those who are continuously enrolled and completed the verification process the prior year with no significant changes.
Another solution would completely exclude students with an automatic zero EFC from verification. While noting that this solution “fared better” with some survey respondents than others, the report authors point to evidence that verification has minimal impact on automatic Zero EFC applicants: in one analysis, 93 percent of automatic zero EFC filers selected for verification retained their maximum award.
Standardizing verification across institutions
Respondents also gave “high marks” to solutions that would unify the verification process across institutions. Rather than asking students to navigate unique requirements for each school, the government could require all schools to use a standard verification form template.
The report notes that standardizing and streamlining verification also would benefit financial aid administrators, who spend significant time managing verification requests and could direct those resources toward other efforts to boost financial literacy and student support.
Verification outlook uncertain
Looking ahead, experts say it remains unclear whether the Education Department will sustain pandemic-related changes designed to ease the verification process. It has not yet extended those provisions to the 2022-23 FAFSA filing cycle. “The offering of this relief is an admission of the burden caused by verification,” the report notes, adding that “the lack of extension is confusing at best for students.”
“All of the reasons the department cited for offering these waivers previously will continue to exist this next year,” NASFAA President Justin Draeger told The Washington Post. “Adding back in this burdensome process … is going to make all of this that much more difficult.”