ED to roll back FAFSA verification

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) during a news conference with other Republican lawmakers on February 1 about problems with the rollout of the updated federal financial aid application. (Screenshot from streamed event)

Facing increasing pressure from Congress, advocacy groups, and students and families over delays and glitches in the rollout of the new federal student aid form and process, the U.S. Education Department (ED) announced Tuesday additional steps to help colleges navigate through the process and get financial aid packages to students and families as quickly as possible.

ED said in a release that the additional measures will make it “easier for schools to process records and spend more time helping students by considerably reducing verification requirements, suspending routine school compliance reviews, and providing flexibility on renewing participation in the federal student aid programs.”

ED also said that by February 16 it would release test versions of Institutional Student Information Records (ISIRs) for colleges to prepare their systems and launch open-source tools to support institutions using test ISIRs. The department said last month that ISIRs, which colleges use to create student aid offers, wouldn’t be accessible until the first half of March, two months later than initially expected. While many four-year colleges have a May 1 deadline for students to commit to their institutions, community colleges have a rolling deadline, so they have more leeway.

This week’s poll: FAFSA headaches

ED’s new steps are in addition to ones the department announced last week, which include deploying federal personnel to support under-resourced colleges, creating a concierge service, and providing additional technical assistance and support.

This week’s new measures

ED’s new steps include:

  • Significantly reducing verification requirements. The department plans to lower verification requirements for this student aid cycle, while ensuring measures are in place to prevent identity fraud.

“With the implementation of the direct data exchange with the IRS, made possible by this year’s overhauled FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] form, the Department is receiving the vast majority of income data directly from the IRS, which will not need to be verified,” according to ED. “This year’s significant reduction in verifications will reduce the burden for colleges and students while continuing to protect against fraud.”

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) last week urged ED to freeze the verification process for the 2024-25 award year, observing that it is a burdensome process that affects low-income students, who are often not familiar with the financial aid system and lack financial understanding.

“At best, verification can cause undue stress and further restrict the time for community college students to make the decision to enroll,” AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus wrote in a February 9 letter to ED brass. “At worst, verification will be an insurmountable burden that causes students to delay or abandon their college-going aspirations.”

  • Suspending new routine program reviews. The department will temporarily halt all new program reviews through June 2024, except for those related to the most serious issues like suspected fraud or a severe breach of fiduciary duty.

“This flexibility will reduce the time that colleges’ financial aid offices need to devote to producing documentation and responding to Department inquiries during the time they need to focus on quickly getting aid award offers to students,” ED said.

  • Providing additional flexibility on recertification. Institutions currently must recertify eligibility for the department’s federal student aid programs no later than 90 days before their Program Participation Agreement (PPA) expires. The department said it will waive that 90-day requirement for schools whose PPA expires in March, June or September 2024, meaning these schools have until their expiration day to submit a recertification application.

“Providing this flexibility will give time back to institutions at a critical moment and enable them to focus their resources on getting students the aid they need,” ED explained.

Political hot water

The department is feeling pressure from both congressional Democrats and Republicans. On Monday, more than 100 House and Senate Democrats wrote to U.S. Education Miguel Cardona to “urgently address” the FAFSA issue.

“Any delays in financial aid processing will most impact students that need aid the most, including many students of color, students from mixed-status families, students from rural backgrounds, students experiencing homelessness or in foster care, first-generation students, and students from underserved communities,” the Democrats wrote.

Each year, about 17 million students complete the FAFSA. With the revamped FAFSA form and process, the department expected an additional 610,000 more low-income students to be eligible for Pell grants, with 1.5 million more students qualifying for the maximum Pell award. About 60% of community college students apply for federal aid, with about 30% of Pell grants going to public two-year college students, according to AACC’s Fast Facts.

However, an analysis by the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) shows FAFSA applications are stumbling this year to date, mainly due to the rollout and confusion. Through February 2, 20% (839,160 students) of the high school class of 2024 has submitted a FAFSA, which is a 49% decrease compared to the last academic year, it said. This cycle’s start has also been disproportionately sluggish for high schools serving students of color and students from limited incomes, NCAN added.

GAO review

Meanwhile, the General Accountability Office will investigate the FAFSA issue at the bicameral request of Republicans. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana), the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a press conference earlier this month that ED’s delay has many high schools at a stand-still on advising students about the process.

“Many students may forgo college because they don’t know if they can afford it. That is the issue here,” he said. “And others will simply be turned off by the error messages in the application and the lack of communication in the process.”

Aside from affecting students, the delay may result in a cash crunch for some smaller colleges, who may have to close, said Cassidy, who has launched a website hotline for students, student aid officials and others to report issues they have experienced with the FAFSA process.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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