FAFSA Verification Process Burdens Students, Colleges

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While focus is often placed on simplifying the Federal Application for Student Aid, not enough attention has been paid to the lengthy and convoluted procedure following the application process, which leaves potentially eligible students without aid, according to a recently released report.

The July Institute for College Access and Success report points to the FAFSA verification process as a major problem, placing a burden on students as well as colleges. This process requires students to resubmit or send in additional information if their application has inconsistencies, estimations, omissions or if the student is selected at random.

In an attempt to simplify the FAFSA procedures and provide greater access to students, the federal government eliminated 26 questions from the form and restructured the website in January, but the report states that this kind of emphasis ignores other post-application issues.

After the U.S. Department of Education receives FAFSAs, individual student applications are flagged for verification, a process that must be completed by colleges and is often costly to the institutions. This process is in place to ensure information in the application is correct and that qualified students are receiving aid. Colleges are mandated to verify at least 30 percent of applications they receive.

Among the applicants tracked in the study, Pell Grant-eligible students chosen for verification were 7 percent less likely to receive grants than students whose applications were not verified. Of the students who were verified, only 2 percent saw a change in their Pell Grant eligibility.

UC Berkeley officials said the campus absorbs much more of students' difficulties because of participation in the federal Quality Assurance Program. In order to participate in this program, UC Berkeley must demonstrate to the U.S. Department of Education that the campus can do quality assurance reviews with a smaller percentage of students, said Roberta Johnson, a campus associate director of financial aid.

"The program results in a reduced load for students and increases the responsibilities of the Financial Aid Office," Johnson said.

During the 2009-10 school year, just under 70 percent of UC Berkeley undergraduates, or nearly 18,000 students, received financial aid. Of those students, less than 10 percent were verified - one-third of the federally mandated requirement.

"When the verification process first came into effect, colleges raised a lot of concerns about delays in the aid delivery process to students," Johnson said. "Some schools are more careful in their review and already had measures in place to verify data."

The program has been highly beneficial because it allows UC Berkeley to tailor its verification process to target the most error-prone areas of the application while reducing the load on students, according to Johnson.

"Our goal is to get the financial aid dollars to the right students and in the right amounts as soon as possible," she said. "Any process that supports that goal, we'll support it."

UC Berkeley sophomore Gagan Singh receives Pell Grants and Cal Grants and has had to submit tax returns and other documents for verification to the campus every time she completes a FAFSA.

"It really wasn't too much work - I just copied my parents' tax forms and turned them in," Singh said. "My financial aid has been really helpful. I wouldn't be able to be here without it."


Contact Aaida Samad at [email protected]

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