The Verification Trap

"Most students don't expect it. They're going along, thinking about something else, when, suddenly, they find themselves in a trap," The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. "It's called 'verification,' a vexing part of the federal-aid process. That's just the official term, though. Many students call it a burden, a nightmare, torture." 

"... Verification, such a bland and bloodless word. Don’t be fooled. It’s really the story of a high-school senior with no ties to his parents who waited four months for the IRS to send the tax form he requested a dozen times. It’s the teenage mother who had to dig up receipts for what she had spent on her child. It’s the father with no internet service who used a library computer to try to get an old form from a tax service, but couldn’t afford the $40 fee. It’s the football player who couldn’t enroll at a community college because his mother refused to give him a tax transcript.

For the most vulnerable students, the line between enrolling and not enrolling, graduating and dropping out, is already thin. Verification difficulties push some people right over that line.

That’s why recent numbers are worrying people. This fall, many colleges have seen the number of the number of students selected for verifications spike, even doubling or tripling, despite the institutions’ having about the same number of aid applications as they did a year ago. And some high-school counselors say selection rates for their students are off the charts.

... No one should be shocked to hear that many students flagged for verification go no further. At Houston Community College, for instance, about 76,000 students filed a Fafsa in 2016-17, and nearly 37,000 (48 percent) were selected. About 18,000 (50 percent) of those students didn’t complete the process, and only about 2,700 of them enrolled without federal aid.

Still, drawing conclusions from such figures is tricky, says JoEllen Soucier, the community-college system’s executive director of financial aid: 'Students apply and don’t complete for many different reasons.' Sure enough, in 2016-17 about one-third of students who completed the verification process and received aid packages at Houston never enrolled either.

Many college officials say they want better data on verification. Everyone knows the process delays and prevents enrollment. But the extent of the problem, as Ms. Soucier says, 'is completely unknown.' Or at least not easily quantified.

... That dynamic worries Nicholas W. Prewett, executive director of student financial aid at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He’s been watching verification numbers climb, too. As of early December, 83 percent of Missouri’s Pell-eligible applicants had been selected. A year ago, the number was just 33 percent. And 38 percent of all students flagged have a $0 EFC. Those numbers trouble him.

The jump in Pell-eligible verifications reflects a sharp increase over all. As of late November, 32 percent of Missouri’s aid applicants had been selected, up from 13 percent a year ago. 'There’s been a little bit of panic,' he says. 'Right now, we’re in a scramble phase to keep up, and it’s going to take us longer to turn around files.'

Mr. Prewett’s office is staffed to handle up to 3,000 verifications per cycle; the university already has more than 5,000. And the more 'regulatory' tasks that aid officers must tend to, the less time they have for one-on-one advising.

Mr. Prewett has a deeper concerns about verification. 'It creates an artificial barrier' for students, he says. 'We’re questioning their authenticity.'

A major shift has occurred within his field. For years, Missouri and many other colleges participated in the federal Quality Assurance Program, which let them set their own verification criteria, based on analyses of application elements that were most likely to contain errors. Many aid directors say the approach enabled them to focus their verification, resulting in fewer selections. The Education Department ended that program at the end of the 2016-17 cycle, and all colleges must now verify the students the government selects.

The current system complicates the nature of aid officers’ work, says Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. 'They’re asked to counsel and be a trusted source, and also to be federal police officers hounding students,' he says. 'Those two things don’t go hand in hand.'"

NASFAA's "Headlines" section highlights media coverage of financial aid to help members stay up to date with the latest news. Inclusion in Today's News does not imply endorsement of the material or guarantee the accuracy of information presented.


Publication Date: 12/12/2017

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