This week, the U.S. Department of Education announced two changes that will simplify an important but frequently overlooked part of the financial aid process, starting with the 2017-18 school year. As a result, low-income students who file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will face fewer barriers to receiving the aid they qualify for, and college financial aid offices will be able to spend more time helping students instead of chasing paper.
The financial application process doesn’t end when students submit the FAFSA, which is the gateway to federal grants, loans, and work-study as well as most state and college aid. Last year alone, 5.3 million students – one in four FAFSA applicants – were required to provide extra documentation to their colleges before they could receive federal student aid. This added step in the FAFSA process is called “verification,” and it mostly affects students with family incomes low enough to qualify for a need-based federal Pell Grant. Our 2010 study, After the FAFSA, found that that the complexity of the verification process unnecessarily prevents many low-income students from receiving aid they are otherwise eligible for. Even for those who get through all the paperwork, the added hurdles delay access to needed aid by weeks or even months into the school year.
The Department has now announced that it is eliminating certain burdensome verification requirements based on clear evidence that they are not worth the trouble for students, schools, or taxpayers.
One of the reasons the Department of Education currently flags students for verification is if the income reported on their FAFSA appears too low to support their household. These students must then document their sources of income and may have to explain how their family survives financially. A recent Boston Globe piece details just how difficult this process can be, and college financial aid administrators have reported tremendous and unnecessary costs to students and schools.
Starting in 2017-18, students will no longer be targeted for verification simply because their families are very poor. The Department of Education said it is eliminating this type of verification because evidence showed that “the burden on families […] far outweighed the benefits.” Nearly all students selected for this form of verification (95%) did not see changes to their Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is used to determine federal aid amounts.
In addition, students who are flagged for verification for other reasons will no longer have to provide extra paperwork if someone in their family received SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps) or if they made child support payments. The Department of Education found that verifying those pieces of information did not make students more or less eligible for aid.
We applaud the Department of Education for removing these unnecessary verification requirements, which made the aid application process more complicated for the neediest students. This is an important step, but more still needs to be done to ensure that the FAFSA verification process protects the integrity of the federal student aid program without unduly denying or delaying access to aid that eligible low-income students need to succeed.
This Administration has already dramatically simplified the initial FAFSA filing process for millions of students and families, making it possible for them electronically transfer their tax information into the FAFSA and apply for aid when they typically apply to colleges, as TICAS and many others have urged. We look forward to working with Congress and the Department of Education to further simplify the aid application process from beginning to end for students and schools, both by eliminating unnecessary questions on the form and by further reducing unnecessary verification and paperwork.