When the Department of Education (ED) announced in July that it would waive most verification requirements for the 2021-22 award year in an effort to provide relief to students amid the coronavirus pandemic, the news was met with widespread applause.
Financial aid offices rejoiced nearly unanimously, now freed up to focus on students and any questions they may have about their aid packages instead of asking students to track down documentation to verify information on their FAFSA.
The feelings of relief from aid offices will be short-lived, though, as ED announced it would not extend the verification waiver for the following award year, adding that it would consider additional flexibilities to the verification process in the future. While the relief this summer has been welcomed, aid administrators spoke of a letdown effect if it proved to be a one-time measure.
In previous years, a portion of students who applied for federal student aid and were eligible for Pell Grants were required to submit additional documentation to verify their income and other information, forcing low-income students to navigate what advocates said was a burdensome process of providing aid offices with additional paperwork, such as tax return information. The process created an, at times, adversarial relationship between students and the aid office, administrators said.
This year, though, the dynamic has shifted. As students return to campus for fall classes, aid administrators report the verification relief has resulted in having more time to help students, allowing students to see the aid office as a resource and advocate for their success.
“In the past there were a lot more conversations of hearing students going to other offices on campus and complaining about the financial aid office,” said Justin Chase Brown, director of scholarships and financial aid at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Now, they're coming to us saying ‘Hey I need some help. Can you help?’ They see us as a resource.”
Typically, this time of year is one of the busiest for aid offices. Many students selected for verification arrive on campus and have to submit documents to complete the process, creating a chaotic time for aid offices and students alike.
Take St. Petersburg College in Florida for example. Wayne Kruger, the executive director of financial assistance operations at St. Petersburg, said the aid office usually performs upwards of 10,000 verifications a year.
With that burden lifted this year, Kruger said his staff members who usually focus on verification were able to instead turn their attention to proactively calling students in July and August and helping them address their individual needs.
The verification waiver “enables the customer service to the students with issues to increase drastically,” Kruger said.
“Instead of us just automating return calls or automating emails to these students we were able to do the individual phone calls. And what we've found is that students respond best to a personal phone call,” he added.
Another financial aid director told NASFAA that student traffic has been extremely low in their financial aid office despite the fact that students are returning to campus and this is typically their busiest time of the year. They credited the change to the verification waiver in place this year, allowing the office to instead focus on other administrative duties.
NASFAA has documented the administrative burden that performing verification puts on aid offices, finding that more than 40% of respondents to a survey of member institutions said complying with verification comprised 20% or more of their operating budgets. NASFAA has also called for improving the verification process.
All interviews for this article took place before ED announced it would not extend the verification waiver to the 2022-23 award year, a move that was met with widespread disapproval.
“Not extending these waivers for 2022-23 will have serious negative consequences for both students and schools. Low-income and vulnerable students have borne the brunt of this pandemic, and it shows in lower FAFSA completions and lower college enrollments,” NASFAA President Justin Draeger said in a statement. “Adding back this burdensome verification process - which results in very few actual changes to aid offers - will make the college going process that much more difficult.”
The interviews with aid administrators before the announcement from ED underscores the impact the verification waiver had on operations this year and foreshadowed concerns many held that students would experience a letdown next year if verification requirements were reimposed.
“My biggest fear is that they don't do this next year and then those 3,000 students that we waived this year wait ‘til the last second to apply thinking that they could just fill out the FAFSA and that's all they have to do,” Kruger said. "And then all of a sudden, we're having to ask for stuff that we didn't ask for last year.”
Many are hoping ED uses data from the 2021-22 award year when the verification waiver was in place to measure the effects and craft new regulations.
“It's night and day this year; the general attitude and emotional response to us,” said Brenda Hicks, director of financial aid at Southwestern College in Kansas and NASFAA's 2020-21 National Chair. “We're helpers again. I hope the statistics [ED] can run later down the road teaches the department that maybe financial aid people can be trusted with figuring out where the trouble spots are.”
Brown said reinstating the verification requirements would feel like a “bait-and-switch.”
“Imagine all the new students who started this year...when you start with new students you set that baseline and set those expectations. Many students would not understand why we were able to waive those items one year but not the next.” he added. “It puts financial aid administrators in a very difficult position because whether we agree with the policies or not we are put in a position to enforce what [ED] wants to have done.”
Critics of verification point out that the process singles out low-income students and students of color. A recent analysis of federal data performed by The Washington Post found that ED has disproportionately selected students for verification who come from majority Black and Latino neighborhoods.
Further, a Tennessee-based study published this year found that students selected for verification were 4.9% less likely to enroll in college than those not flagged for the review.
The process as it currently stands imposes significant burdens on students and aid administrators — and largely does not significantly alter financial aid offers. In a 2018 survey of 45 institutions, NASFAA found that on average, 84% of verified applications resulted in either no change to the student’s expected family contribution (EFC) or a change so small that it did not result in a change to the student’s Pell Grant award.
“I think that there's a much smaller percentage of students who are fundamentally trying to lie on their application or cheat on their application. That’s a much smaller population than people think it is,” Kruger said. “There's a much bigger population of people who just don't know how to fill out the [FAFSA] correctly.”
Publication Date: 9/7/2021