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FAFSA Verification a Barrier for Students

As we round into the spring and FAFSA completion continues to ramp up, students and those who serve them may be trying to understand what they should do to get through the verification process. 

March 1, 2021

Anyone involved with helping students and families complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has come into contact with a part of the process often bemoaned and begrudged: being selected for verification. 

According to the office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), verification is “the process your school uses to confirm that the data reported on your FAFSA form is accurate.” Students find out they’ve been selected when they receive their Student Aid Report (SAR) after completing the FAFSA, and a student’s school will reach out to them to provide additional information. 

The FAFSA can be an onerous, confusing process for some students and families, one in which they’re not sure why they’re sharing all this closely-held financial information in the first place. Being selected for verification often seems like one more hurdle, at best, or an insurmountable barrier, at worst. 

The most important thing students (and families) can hear when they’ve been selected is “Don’t assume you’re being accused of doing anything wrong.” As FSA notes, “Some people are selected for verification at random; and some schools verify all students’ FAFSA forms.” 

FSA announced some good news at its most recent conference: For the current 2021-22 FAFSA cycle, the verification selection rate for all filers was reduced from 22% to 18%. However, the selection rate for Pell Grant-eligible FAFSA filers remains much higher. 

As we round into the spring and FAFSA completion continues to ramp up, students and those who serve them may be trying to understand what they should do to get through the verification process. 

NerdWallet has an excellent article here that offers four good pieces of advice: 

  1. Gather your documents. 
  2. Fill out the FAFSA verification worksheets. 
  3. Send in your verification materials before the deadline. 
  4. Follow up on changes to your financial aid package. 

Obviously, these recommendations are at the 10,000-foot level, but dig into the article to find more specific pieces of advice. 

NCAN has previously shared students’ stories about how FAFSA verification negatively impacted them. Estuardo and Axel’s stories show how stressful an experience being selected can be and how it can jeopardize the financial aid that makes a postsecondary pathway possible. 

Verification’s impacts are more than anecdotal. NCAN has previously estimated that “verification melt,” a term where students fail to obtain the financial aid for which they’re eligible, or worse, fail to matriculate at all, could be as high as 25% for those verified. In 2019, FSA estimated that the rate was more like 11% based on their internal data. 

The large disparity between NCAN’s estimate and FSA’s largely comes from data sourcing. NCAN created its estimate using the best available (but still very limited) public data, but FSA has access to actual student-level data. In this case, FSA was able to hold a comparison group of verification-eligible students out of the process. Comparing the aid receipt outcomes of students from the same group who did and did not actually go through the verification process creates a much more accurate estimate of verification’s effects. 

Last year, with data provided by FSA, NCAN conducted the first comprehensive review of verification’s impact on Pell Grant awards. More than 70% of students saw no change to their Pell Grant after completing verification. An additional 9% of students saw changes of less than $500. For students from the lowest-income backgrounds, those who qualify for an “auto-zero expected family contribution,” more than 90% saw no change. 

There’s no doubt about two things. First, because it unlocks many forms of financial aid, FAFSA completion is an important milestone on the way to college-going. Second, for many students, being selected for verification gets in the way of obtaining that financial aid. Even with recent decreases in verification selection rates, many students will still go through the process this year. It is critical that counselors, advisors, and other adults assisting students and families with FAFSA completion know how to guide them through the verification process.

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