Officials dial back FAFSA verification, a known barrier for low-income students

The U.S. Department of Education is reducing the share of students who will be asked to verify their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. The department will select 18 percent of aid applications for verification in the 2020-21 enrollment cycle, a sharp drop from the 30 percent it usually reviews. 

Verification widely considered an access hurdle

Even without verification layered on top, the FAFSA is difficult to complete, especially for low-income students and first-generation students. Students who are selected to verify their FAFSA must submit even more information to colleges. The institution then must validate the accuracy of the new information to clear the student’s path to federal financial aid. 

It’s a time-consuming process—and a barrier for low-income and first-generation students who might have difficulty tracking down the necessary info or needed advice. “We’re essentially asking poor people to prove that they’re poor over and over again,” one researcher previously told The Chronicle. A National College Attainment Network analysis of 2015-16 FAFSAs estimates that verification prevented one in five Pell-eligible students from ultimately receiving those grants.

Related: Federal aid verification process leaving low-income students vulnerable to delays, denials >

Low-income students could still bear brunt of verification burden

Education officials announced the shift to fewer verifications at the Dec. 1-4 Federal Student Aid Training Conference, telling financial aid administrators that machine learning will enable the department to be more targeted and cost-efficient. They said the department had verified 22 percent of applications during the last two FAFSA cycles.

While applauding the decision as progress, college access advocates caution that the federal government will need to do more to reduce the verification burden, which will still fall disproportionately on students with the greatest need. 

“It’s one thing to say the overall number is going down, but too often we’re not looking at who’s being affected on the ground,” Sara Urquidez, executive director of the Academic Success Program, told The Chronicle. “I don’t see verification numbers going down at Title I high schools. Verification continues to target and penalize students for being low income. It’s still very much affecting the students who are going to have the most trouble completing this process, especially in this virtual environment.”

Congress moving toward simplified FAFSA

Meanwhile, a simplified FAFSA also could be within sight, congressional aides say. According to Inside Higher Ed, Senate and House education committee staff members have been working on creating a mutually agreeable deal to, among other things, reduce the number of FAFSA questions and automatically import tax information where available. The measures would be a welcome sight for Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, who is set to retire in 2021 and has wanted to simplify the federal student aid form for years.

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