A new Washington Post analysis shows that students in majority-Black and Latinx neighborhoods are asked to verify the accuracy of information submitted in their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) far more often than students in majority-white communities. The additional documentation burden, in turn, risks deterring students who are already underrepresented in higher education. The 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.
While the verification process was created to prevent fraud in the federal aid system, critics of the approach have long said it disproportionately creates college access barriers for low-income students. Approximately 18 million students—or one-quarter of all FAFSA filers—were selected for verification during the 2019-20 cycle. The education department estimates that 11 percent of students tapped for verification never complete the process, but some experts say the number is closer to 25 percent.
Black, Latinx communities disproportionately affected
The education department’s methodology for selecting applications for verification remains unclear, but students whose expected family contribution (EFC) is $0—those with the greatest need for financial aid—are asked to verify their FAFSA far more often than students with higher EFCs who qualify for less aid, experts say. Students with low EFCs also are more likely to be Black and Latinx—a disparity further quantified by the Post’s latest calculations.
For its analysis, the Post examined verification data from the decade spanning 2010 to 2020, accounting for more than 68 million applications. Sorting that data by ZIP code, the Post found that communities where the majority of residents identify as Black and Latinx had per-capita verification rates that were 1.8 and 1.4 times higher, respectively, than communities where most residents identify as white. Put another way, in 2020, majority-white ZIP codes had 116 FAFSA verifications for every 10,000 residents; majority-Black ZIP codes had 203, and majority-Latinx ZIP codes had 181.
“The disparate impact of the policy,” the Post writes, “raises questions about whether the Education Department is reinforcing systemic racism through an expensive process with limited benefits.”
Advocates push for fewer verification requests
According to a National College Attainment Network analysis of two recent financial aid cycles, just 3 percent of all applicants selected for verification ultimately became ineligible for their initial Pell grant; more than 70 percent of verification processes resulted in no change to an award, and students with a $0 EFC were especially likely to emerge from the audit with their full Pell grant.
Federal officials in December 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 addition, the omnibus spending and relief bill signed at the end of 2020 will allow more aid applicants to have their taxed and untaxed income automatically transferred into the FAFSA, reducing opportunities for error. However, noting that income is just one input, college access advocates say they remain concerned about the hurdles created by the verification process.
“We ask students—often those most vulnerable and marginalized by the inequities in our systems—to prove over and over again they need the money for college,” Teresa Steinkamp, advising director at the nonprofit Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, told the Post. “And once they navigate these complicated barriers, the aid is often insufficient to cover the need they’ve verified they have.”