Feds aim to boost access by removing financial aid barriers

Removal of verification barriers will help students in need.
By: | July 13, 2021
Adobe Stock

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday installed temporary changes to the federal aid verification process for the 2021-22 award year that could help millions of low-to-moderate-income students seeking to enroll or remain at institutions of higher education.

The Department said it will eliminate hurdles that often prevent students from submitting Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms,  instead focusing efforts on identity theft and fraud. Officials say the continued financial burdens on families from the COVID-19 pandemic played a part in ED’s decision to streamline the process. It is unclear whether removal of those barriers, which could include transcripts of tax returns, will remain in the future.

“This has been an exceptionally tough year,” said Richard Cordray, Chief Operating Officer of Federal Student Aid. “We need to ensure students have the most straightforward path to acquiring the financial aid they need to enroll in college and continue their path to a degree. We will continue to evaluate what improvements can be done longer-term to make the verification process more equitable while still preventing fraud.”

The change could prompt as many as 200,000 additional students from underserved communities and students of color to enroll and persist to degree completion. The ED noted trends from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center that showed declines in enrollment, retention and persistence throughout the year at four-year colleges and especially two-year institutions. Black, Hispanic and Native American students have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic and also by the cumbersome financial aid process. Relief is especially welcome for the 20% of Pell Grant-eligible applicants who don’t file taxes because of extremely low incomes who struggle to navigate through the maze of steps required to apply.

“This singular act from the Department of Education provides sweeping relief to students and schools when they need it most, and will fast track financial aid dollars to students who are otherwise mired in bureaucratic red tape,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

NASFAA has shown that difficult verification procedures often are unnecessary, providing results from a study from the 2018-19 award year of 45 institutions that serve more than 700,000 students. More than 80% of applications at four-year institutions (and 90% at two-year schools) that were approved had no change to family contributions or minute details that did not affect overall awards.

NAFSAA also noted that tracking verification has been a challenge because the Department hasn’t publicly released that data since 2014-15, when it showed that a little more than 42% of applications were amended though not necessarily changes to student aid.

ED noted in a statement that streamlining verification should also help financial aid administrators, “allowing them to focus their time and resources on administering emergency relief funds, getting students into and through higher education, including by updating FAFSA information for students who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and by helping students learn about and access emergency financial aid grants provided under the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.”