FAFSA applicants face unequal selection for verification


Madeline Pierce

Students can seek out financial aid and relevant resources at the Office of Student Financial Aid. Lower-income students have a higher national chance of being selected for further verification in the application process.

By HongBin Jeong , Contributing Writer

Lower-income students have been selected most often for further verification in their Free Application for Federal Student Aid applications, which may prolong and complicate their application process.

Students are defined as lower-income if they are eligible for a Pell Grant, which is a need-based aid program provided by the federal government, said Michelle Trame, director and senior associate director of student financial aid.

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To make sure grant money is going to eligible students, the Department of Education selects a few applicants to verify their income eligibility for federal aid.

The department has built algorithms to search for possibly misreported income or taxes. If selected, students are required to submit additional documentation, such as tax return documents and W-2 forms, Trame said.

Lower-income students are selected for verification of income eligibility at a higher rate than others, said Daniel Mann, interim associate provost for enrollment management.

“Lower-income families tend to be more first-generation college students, so they may not have as much familiarity in the process in how it works,” Mann said. “They tend to maybe leave questions blank, or not know how to answer them, so those kinds of things are errors as why they get selected for verification process.”

Trame said the department does not share its algorithm for who they select for verification.

“That’s something that they keep close to the vest,” Trame said. “There’s always concern that the money’s going to right students, so the students are eligible for the funds that they are receiving, and I think they’re just wanting to make sure the money is going to the right students.”

The verification process adds pressure to the student applicants who have to take more time to request the proper documentation, Trame said.

Elizabeth Garcia, sophomore in LAS, was one of the applicants chosen to go through the verification process.

“I’m assuming I was one of the lucky people who were chosen at random since I had step-by-step help at school for filling out my FAFSA, so I highly doubt the information I provided was incomplete or wrong,” Garcia said in a message. “I don’t think that it is reasonable for them to flag my process seeing as they are only making my life harder at trying to receive a higher education.”

While the University tries to reach out and help students complete the process, there are a handful of students who aren’t able to provide the required documentation and may not be able to fulfill the verification, Trame said.

“Sometimes it is lack of familiarity with what we’re really asking for, maybe understanding what we’re needing just because they haven’t had to produce those kinds of documentation for other things in their life,” Mann said.

But the vast majority can work with their financial aid office to get issues resolved, he said.

Mann said applicants should use data retrieval tools to reduce the risk of potential errors in their applications. The Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool can help reduce the chances of being selected for verification by automatically pulling IRS tax information onto the FAFSA application.

“The FAFSA process is really not terribly difficult, unless you do it completely incorrectly,” he said. “And so this (is) one of the things that it benefits to take a little extra time to check before you hit that submit button.”

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