Nearly half of low-income students who are accepted to college never show up for the first day of classes. Bogged down by the complex and paperwork-intensive financial aid process, would-be enrollees simply drop out before they start. At a federal level, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has become an easy scapegoat when it comes to simplifying the process. The lesser-known phenomenon of verification melt, which refers to the loss of students who complete the FAFSA but then drop out during the verification process, is equally troubling but eminently addressable.
As a concept, financial aid verification is simple. To be eligible for federal financial aid, a student must complete and submit the FAFSA. After students complete the FAFSA, they may receive word from the Department of Education that their application has been flagged for “verification”—an audit their school is required to conduct to ensure the information is complete and accurate.
Verification is an essential part of ensuring the viability of a financial aid system that saw $6 billion in improper payments made in 2016. However, when done effectively, the verification process can solve over one-third of these inaccurate payments. In the 2017 to 2018 aid year, 70 percent of verifications resulted in corrections to data that had been self-reported by students on the FAFSA. The system needs verification.
But what is sensible and necessary bookkeeping for the federal government is, for many students, a confusing and intimidating process. Verification is disproportionately focused on low-income students, repetitive, archaic, and still – in 2018 – paper-based. Today’s students are accustomed to doing everything on their phones, from mobile banking to communicating with friends and family.
In the 2017-2018 academic year alone, 31 percent of students were selected for verification, which started these tech-savvy students down the confusing and analogue path of the auditing process. Research from professional organizations in higher education suggests verification is so cumbersome that up to 22 percent of those selected won’t complete the process. That’s 90,000 low-income students not completing the financial aid process, leaving them with very few options to finance their education, and most likely not enrolling in college.
As a result, many organizations like the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) argue that the solution to verification melt is FAFSA simplification. “The solution here is simple, and it must come from Congress,” Justin Draeger, NASFAA President, recently wrote in The Hill. “The only way to meaningfully decrease verification burden on students, while maintaining integrity in the financial aid programs, is to fix the FAFSA.”
Perhaps. But there is a faster fix. It is possible to significantly decrease verification melt today with zero involvement from the federal government, and schools can do it in two easy steps.
If the goal is to meaningfully decrease the verification burden on students, the first step is to stop over-verification. The Department of Education sets minimum standards for the verification process, yet approximately 50 percent of schools require documentation and information in excess of those minimum requirements. In more than half of these instances, the additional requirements force students to collect documentation from federal and state organizations. These tedious extra steps significantly deter many students from completing verification.
For example, only in rare cases does the Department of Education require schools to collect documentation from a student who is considered independent because he or she was a ward of the court, are a veteran, support dependents other than children, or are homeless. However, 50 percent of schools continue to require third-party documentation and even personal signed statements from these students. It’s a practice that’s actively discouraged by the Department of Education—yet it continues.
The negative impact of over-verification is clear:
- 1-in-5 students who are asked for documentation of dependency status don’t complete verification.
- The verification process, unsurprisingly, takes longer at schools that over-verify student records—taking, on average, 145 percent longer for students to submit the necessary documentation.
- Institutions that don’t ask for extra documentation see 10 percent higher completion rates than those who over-verify.
Schools can reduce verification melt—substantially improving verification completion rates, and completion time—by only collecting the information legally mandated by the Education Department.
Technology is already reducing the burden of verification on students, without Congress having had to lift a finger. In an era where we can deposit checks in real-time from our mobile phones, technology—as much as policy—can undergird the modernization of a stubbornly archaic system. When was the last time your bank expected you to go to their website, download forms, fill them out manually, fax them in, and then wait for follow-up on your transaction? And when was the last time you filled out page after page of repetitive information—instead of auto-generating frequently used information into forms?
The technology exists to improve the verification process, and we know it is effective. By implementing solutions that allow for mobile completion of verification, schools have reported increases in their verification completion rates by 5 percent or more.
The beauty of implementing more technologically advanced options to facilitate the completion of verification is that you can use data within the student’s record to speed the process by pre-populating forms, auto-identifying conflicting information, and nudging students to a positive outcome with text messages and interactive counseling.
Implementation of mobile, personalized electronic student experiences helps financial aid offices to meet students where they are. Technology also empowers students to complete verification in a simple self-guided interface.
When Western Governors University (WGU), an online-only institution serving 60,000 students, transitioned to a mobile, digital financial aid experience for managing verification, completion rates increased by 5 percent. It was a win for the university in other ways, too, with verification costs dropping by 40 percent. At California’s Fullerton College, mobile financial aid technology—including electronic document submission and e-signature—reduced the university’s processing time for verification by 95 percent.
And Should We Share The Data?
By all means—data sharing at the Federal level could and would improve the financial aid process for students while reducing the burden for students and schools. However, facilitating this data sharing will likely take time, and in the meantime, there are very significant steps that institutions can take immediately to streamline the financial aid process experience for admitted students and reduce verification melt.
Verification melt will not be solved by a single silver bullet, but reducing over-verification would improve melt rates by up to 20 percent while adding technology to the equation will further drive completion rates. These options don’t require additional funding or federal regulation and will yield significant improvements for institutions’ verification processes and financial aid at-large. Schools like Fullerton and WGU are leading the way by maintaining simple and straightforward requirements and implementing student-friendly technology.
Verification melt is a daunting challenge, but fortunately, solutions are already at hand for institutions to implement. We just need institutional leaders to be champions with the courage to move away from the attitude of “that’s the way it’s always been done” and toward a system and financial aid experience that will benefit both students and schools.
Amy Glynn is the vice president of financial aid and community initiatives at CampusLogic, an education technology business based in Arizona.