Washington Watch: ED reduces verification burden

Photo: Matthew Dembicki/AACC

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced a temporary change in federal student aid IV verification policy that should dramatically reduce administrative burdens on student financial aid offices, while also enabling more students to qualify for Title IV aid. 

As campus officials know, the required verification of student and family information in the FAFSA application process has prevented thousands of students from receiving aid – even though this process has not received nearly as much attention as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA), whose required data elements were reduced in legislation enacted last December as part of broader pandemic relief legislation.

Verification’s unequal impact

Verification commonly requires a substantial subset of federal student aid applicants who are eligible for Pell Grants to submit additional documentation, such as transcripts of tax returns, to verify their income and other information reported on the FAFSA. Non-Pell-eligible applicants are not selected for income verification. Consequently, the verification process disproportionately burdens students from low-income backgrounds and students of color. According to ED, the process can be extremely challenging for students, particularly because at least 20 percent of Pell-eligible applicants are exempt from tax filing due to their low-income levels. This prevents them from using the automated Data Retrieval Tool to easily import verified income data from the IRS onto their FAFSA form and can impose difficulties in acquiring the necessary documentation to document their income.

Typically, more than three million potential Pell Grant recipients are selected for verification each year.  ED has stated that its revised verification policy can help approximately 200,000 more students from low-income backgrounds and students of color enroll in college and continue on a degree pathway. 

The announced changes will apply for the current (2021-22) award year and apply immediately, even for students originally flagged for verification but for whom the process was not completed.   Moving forward, verification will be limited to cases of identity/statement of educational purpose and high school completion status under verification tracking groups V4 and V5. 

Looking forward on the application process

ED has not announced whether the revised verification procedures will be extended past the current award year, but its focus on this process provides encouragement that the challenges presented by verification will be reduced in the future.  Further, the implementation of the 2019 FAFSA Act, which allows IRS data to be imported directly into students’ applications, should dramatically reduce the need for verification and is expected to be of particular benefit to community college students.  

Michael J. Bennett, associate vice president for financial assistance at St. Petersburg College said that “providing verification relief for community college and low-income students is always appreciated.” Bennett continued by stating that “aid delayed is access denied” and noted that the college will now focus on the midyear implementation of the new policy. 

Joan Zanders, Northern Virginia Community College’s director of financial aid also noted that they are working to implement the midyear change and said “eliminating V1 verifications mid-year came as a tremendous surprise to the financial aid community.” She also noted that the change was a “welcome opportunity to award financial aid more quickly for students.”

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.