You know what’s worse than performance reviews? (I can hear you thinking “nothing,” but bear with me.) What’s worse than having your performance reviewed is not being reviewed and having a small error escalate into a massive issue over time. Feedback isn’t always fun, but it is fundamental to success.
Federal Student Aid (FSA), the office that performs audits and program reviews on college financial aid departments to help them catch errors and improve compliance, released its lists of Top 10 Audit and Program Review Findings at the 2014 FSA Training Conference this week. On both lists, the category “verification violations” was among the top 5.
This isn’t the first year verification violations have topped the findings lists, proving the issue is ongoing for financial aid (FA) offices. Before we discuss potential solutions for verification, let’s delve into why the verification process can be a struggle for FA offices.
Understanding the Burden of Verification on Financial Aid Offices
Each year, approximately 30% of filed FAFSAs are selected for verification. With one in three financial aid applicants undergoing verification, this process alone can eat up the bulk of financial aid admins’ time. Here are some reasons why:
Workflow is Complex: Just as FAFSA applications do not come in at the same time, neither are verifications processed simultaneously. FA counselors must attempt to process the verification in a workflow of “first in, first out.” It may be tempting to process a quick verification ahead of a complex one, but this is how workflow gets disrupted and students may be overlooked.
Students Get Confused: “But I already submitted all of that. I need to do it again?” Some students ignore verification, thinking it’s a mistake and that the school will sort it out and see the evidence/documentation in the original FAFSA.
Parents May Not Be Cooperative or Tech-savvy: It was like pulling teeth to get my busy parents to fill out my FAFSA applications, partially because we lived in different states. If I had to go back to them for a second time, who knows how long it would have taken. Meanwhile, I could have missed out on much-needed aid.
Students May Be Unresponsive: Financial aid admins spend much of their time chasing down students for documentation or information
No Secure Document Submission: Many parents do not want to risk sending sensitive documents via email (nor should they) or snail mail. This means they have to find time to come to the financial aid office in person to safely submit documents.
Concerns with Outsourcing Verifications
Some institutions will turn to outsourcing to complete verifications, though the trend is moving away from this process. In our blog about outsourcing vs. automation, we discuss the top five risks that have dissuaded many schools from outsourcing, including:
- Risks of Exposing Sensitive Student Information
- Additional Upfront Work
- Quality of Verifications May Suffer
- No Control of Processes
- Lack of Student Focus
It’s the third and fourth reasons that we believe contributes most to verification violations on audit findings and program reviews. The bottom line is schools are responsible for audit findings, even when audited work was performed by outsourcers. But without full control of the process and little or no chance to QA outsourcers, it’s all too easy for one mistake to snowball before a school catches it. Then the school is left to deal with the repercussions, which may be costly to fix.
An Innovative Solution
If outsourcing is too risky and time-intensive, what are understaffed or overwhelmed financial aid officers left with? Until recently, not much other than work their tails off during peak season.
We’ve changed that with our product StudentVerification. StudentVerification solves the biggest financial aid office complaints, including:
Not Enough Time – StudentVerification is an automated portal, meaning it communicates with students to let them know what documents are needed, if documents have been uploaded incorrectly and what is still missing. Staff is also notified when documents are submitted. The entire process could occur overnight or during a weekend without taking up any of the financial aid counselor’s time.
Data Submission isn’t Secure – Too many financial aid offices accept documents via email. This is a data breach waiting to happen. Email is NOT a secure option for sensitive documents such as social security cards, tax transcripts and birth certificates. Information submitted via StudentVerification is protected with government level data encryption.
Processes are Inefficient – Financial aid counselors are pulled in so many directions it’s often hard to ensure everyone is following best practices for efficiency. StudentVerification makes the verification process completely transparent for financial aid directors. They can see how many are being processed by each FA officer, ensure they’re processed in the correct order and see what is taking longer than it should, putting them in the perfect position to offer advice and restructure workflows for maximum efficiency.
Students aren’t Tech Savvy – How does an online student self-service portal help those who aren’t tech savvy? Quite as easily as hundreds of thousands of not-so-tech-savvy people file their taxes each year on Turbo Tax. Our portal is simple. Anyone who can email a picture with a smart phone is capable of submitting verification documents through StudentVerification. And throughout the process there are help boxes to answer questions.
Financial Aid: The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that financial aid is complicated. And it grows more complicated every year. The millennial student body expects schools to utilize the latest technology, because the world they’ve always lived in is a technologically advance one. But more importantly, technology is a way to make the financial aid process quicker, less risky, less expensive and easier for both administrators and students. Sounds like a win-win to me.