The idea of Verification Melt—the concept that students are scared off by or can’t complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid because of the complex process—has received renewed attention lately. Which is great, because we should all be paying attention to removing roadblocks that keep students from pursuing higher education.
But we shouldn’t be using the term as justification for simplifying the FAFSA.
Verification Melt Isn’t New—But It’s Trending
The National College Access Network (NCAN) coined the term Verification Melt about a year ago. The Center for Community College Leadership & Research at UC Davis School of Education has been vocal about “Verification Melt Plaguing One in Five Community College Students.” And Time Magazine weighed in on the debate in December of 2017.
Verification—Simple, Complex, Necessary
The concept of financial aid verification is simple. To be eligible for Federal financial aid, a student must complete and submit the FAFSA. After he or she does, the process moves into the Department of Education’s court (sports analogies rock). At this stage, ED is accountable for reviewing all FAFSA applications and for identifying those students who should be audited to verify that the information provided on the FAFSA was correct. Makes sense, since ED is also the one responsible for, disbursing $120 billion to 13 million students at 6,000 institutions in 2017. Simple, right? Yes, in theory.
But in reality, for many students, going through the verification process is anything but simple. The process—at most institutions—is highly manual, repetitive, confusing, archaic, paper-based. In 2017-2018 alone, 31% of financial aid eligible students were selected for this audit process—those numbers are based on a review of 2.5 million ISIR records from 150-plus institutions. Many professional organizations in higher education are reporting that the verification process is so cumbersome that up to 22% of those selected for verification won’t complete the process. That translates into 90,000 low-income high school seniors not completing the financial aid process, leaving them with very few options to finance their education and most likely resulting in not enrolling in college.
Many organizations claim that the solution to verification melt is FAFSA simplification. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) is one of them.
Simplifying the FAFSA Isn’t the Solution
In an opinion piece published by The Hill, Justin Draeger, NASFAA President says: “The solution here is simple, and it must come from Congress: The only way to meaningfully decrease verification burden on students, while maintaining integrity in the financial aid programs, is to fix the FAFSA. Doing so—by auto-importing data that is already considered verified by other federal agencies, and addressing the underlying financial aid eligibility formulas—would make the process easier for our neediest students and ensure federal dollars are being targeted responsibly.”
Mr. Draeger’s opinion has merit, we just differ on the solution. Verification is an essential part of ensuring the viability of our financial aid system—a system that saw $6 billion in improper payments made in 2016. When done accurately, and enabled by tech and good operations, the current financial aid verification process would stop more than one-third of these inaccurate payments. In fact, in the 17-18 aid year, 70% of verifications resulted in corrections to data that had been self-reported by students on the FAFSA. And his opinion is certainly not the only solution; we could fix the system with zero involvement from the Federal government with these three easy steps.
Three Ways to Solve Verification Melt
1) Stop over-verifying:
If the goal is to “meaningfully decrease verification burden on students” the first step is to stop over-verification. The Department of Education sets minimum standards for the verification process. Based on our review of 200 plus institutions, over 50% of schools today 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—often implemented by schools with the best of intentions and the idea that it means they’re being good stewards of their funds—significantly deter many students from completing verification.
For example, only in rare cases are schools required 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% 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. Other over-verification stats:
- Verification completion rates are significantly lower, and the process takes longer, at schools that over-verify student records.
- 1-in-5 students asked for documentation of dependency status don’t complete verification.
- Institutions that don’t ask for extra documentation see 10% higher completion rates than those who over-verify.
- It takes on average 145% longer for students to submit necessary documentation at institutions that over-verify.
Schools can reduce verification melt—and substantially improve verification completion rates—by only collecting the information legally mandated by the Department of Education. Schools need to embrace the Department’s simplifications if they want to improve efficiency. Time and money involved to make this switch immediately: zero.
2) Leverage Technology
Technology is already “meaningfully reduce[ing] the verification burden on students, while maintaining integrity in the financial aid programs,” without Congress having had to lift a finger. And technology, like the CampusLogic Student Financial Services Platform, offers the 24/7, personalized, secure experience students expect today. Think about it: when was the last time your bank expected you to go to their website first to download forms, fill them out manually, fax them in and then wait for follow-up? How many of us deposit checks by taking a photo with our smartphone?
Let’s go back to the idea that 22% of students won’t make it through verification—but think about it through the lens of technology. Through the simple implementation of a solution that allows for mobile completion of verification, schools report increases in their verification completion rates by 5% or more.
Implementation of mobile, personalized electronic student experiences help Financial Aid Offices to meet students where they are. Technology also empowers students to complete verification in a simple self-guided interface. A CampusLogic customer, North Central Texas College reports “we are seeing fewer errors from students because the workflow for them is very easy, intuitive, and guided.” Cuesta College, another CampusLogic customer, reduced FinAid processing time by 89%—and reduced staff legwork to get necessary documents by 75%. And our technology is helping Western Governors University increase their verification completion rates by 5%. Because the student experience is now more intuitive and mobile, WGU’s students had fewer questions throughout verification which reduced incoming student calls by 55%.
3) In Data We Trust
Simplifying the FAFSA by reducing the information requested on it isn’t the worst idea, but it’s also not the best way to “maintain integrity in the financial aid program.” Data drives integrity, and technology is data’s #BFF. The beauty of implementing more technologically advanced options for completion of verification is that you can use data within the student’s record to speed up verification by pre-populating forms, auto identifying conflicting information, and nudging students to a positive outcome with text messages and interactive counseling. Simplify the FAFSA and you lose some of those opportunities. You may also lose accountability. I do agree with Mr. Draeger, that increased data sharing at the Federal level could and would improve the financial aid process for students while reducing burden for students and schools.
Verification Melt Solutions Are Already Here
Up to 22% of students won’t complete verification. But reducing over-verification would improve melt rates by up to 20%, while adding technology to the equation will further drive completion rates. These options are 100% in the control of institutions and will yield significant improvements the verification process and financial aid at-large. Many institutions are already leading the charge to improve verification by simplifying their institutional requirements and implementing student friendly technology. Rather than focusing solely on FAFSA simplification as the ONLY answer, as an industry we should be leading the charge and looking to the many free, innovative, and collaborative options that already exist.