The Disproportionate Impact of FAFSA Verifications

FAFSA verification is a federally mandated process that places strain on students and carries a large administrative burden for financial aid offices. New research shows how those questions are unevenly distributed. 

April 01, 2021

Gregory Latshaw

An intimidating stack of paperwork

Every year, tens of millions of college students in the United States file for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is the gateway to accessing state and federal aid, including Pell Grants. This aid is vital for low-income, historically marginalized students who may have no other way to finance their college education. 

While previous research has shown how the cumbersome nature of FAFSA filings can limit college access, new research by the University of Pittsburgh School of Education shows how FAFSA verifications also carry significant costs for families and higher education institutions. 

Verification is a federally mandated process that requires some students to further attest that the information reported on their FAFSA is accurate and complete. Higher education institutions are required to work directly with students to complete this review process. The unfunded mandate places additional strain on students and carries a large administrative burden for financial aid offices.

Alberto Guzman-Alvarez“After submitting the FAFSA, about one-fourth of students get flagged for further scrutiny with the verification process,’ says Alberto Guzman-Alvarez, a PhD student in learning sciences and policy in the Pitt School of Education. He is the lead-author of a study on this topic, which he conducted along with Associate Professor Lindsay C. Page.

“Students must provide additional info to verify that the information on their FAFSA is correct. All of this is very time-consuming. That is problematic because a lot of financial aid is first-come, first-serve. It’s also not transparent on what makes students be selected for verification,” says Guzman-Alvarez.

The research is part of the paper “Disproportionate Burden: Estimating the Cost of FAFSA Verification for Public Colleges and Universities,” which was recently published in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis journal of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). 

A Lack of Transparency and Accountability

Millions of FAFSA verifications occur each year, despite there being little to no evidence of fraud occurring through FAFSA filings, says Guzman-Alvarez. 

“We found that this verification process disproportionately affects public institutions, especially two-year community colleges. For community colleges, almost a quarter of their operating budget is going to the verification process. That is compared to about 1 percent of the operating budget for private institutions,” says Guzman-Alvarez. 

Lindsay PagePage says the research is among the first studies to ask important questions of the FAFSA verification process. Specifically, what is the cost of FAFSA verifications, and how are those costs being distributed?

“There’s not much transparency about who is selected, but we know it disproportionately falls to low-income students,” says Page. “Sixty-percent of Pell-eligible FAFSA filers are selected for income verification. The problem is this is creating another barrier of access for financial aid for students.”

Furthermore, since the verification process is not centralized, a student applying to three different colleges may have to submit information three times as part of the FAFSA verification. 

How to Fix It

Guzman-Alvarez and Page say it’s time for a full-scale evaluation of the costs and benefits of the FAFSA verification. They say the last review was conducted in the 1990s.

Possible improvements to the process, they say, are found in the Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education Act. Among other things, the legislation would increase data sharing between the Internal Revenue Service (I.R.S.) and the U.S. Department of Education. Doing so would ensure that financial information would be shared, which would reduce the number of questions on the FAFSA and would allow some information to be “pre-verified.”

Another potential solution would be to make the federal government carry out the FAFSA verification process instead of making higher education institutions do it. As Page notes, if that happened, the government may be more motivated to create a more streamlined process. 

For Guzman-Alvarez, the research into FAFSA verification is personal. 

He was a first-generation college student at the University of California, Davis, and was a Pell grant recipient during all four years. He wants to improve the FAFSA verification process, which he believes creates a disproportionate burden in higher education.

“It’s just another process to get poor people to verify that they are poor,” he says.

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