Nearly a quarter of the roughly 18 million students who filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, were selected for verification in the 2019-2020 cycle. By comparison, the Internal Revenue Service audited less than half a percent of all returns last year.
The federal government is taking steps to lower the number of students subjected to verification, but it remains an added hurdle for students reliant on federal support to pursue higher education and vexing enough to derail some.
Brayneisha Edwards, 20, wondered whether she was cut out for college after verification left her scrambling to pay for school in the fall.
Edwards, a sophomore studying psychology and sociology at Maryville University in St. Louis, received a notice in the summer after filing her financial aid application requesting she complete a worksheet detailing the size of her family and their earnings. She turned in the form to the financial aid office, believing that was the end of it. Weeks later, after classes were underway, Edwards recalls being told the form was missing. Another submission. Another delay.
As the semester drew to a close, Edwards’s audit came to an end. But by then, she had lost out on scholarships provided on a first-come, first-serve basis for the fall. That left Edwards owing money and unable to register for spring classes.
“It’s very stressful,” Edwards said. “My grades are suffering. I have all of these doubts about am I even going to finish college. My parents didn’t go to college and they are trying to help, but this is new to all of us.”
Verification is intended to maintain the integrity of the $120 billion federal financial aid system, especially the billions of dollars in Pell grants provided to students with limited means like Edwards.
Students must comply with the Education Department or lose access to grants, scholarships and loans. Although the department selects students to audit, colleges must review and approve their documentation. The more complex their financial situation, the more documents they must submit and the longer the verification may take.
Each year, tens of thousands of students drop out of the process altogether, jeopardizing their ability to pay for and complete college. The department pegs this so-called “verification melt” at 11 percent of students selected for audit, but financial aid experts put it as high as 25 percent.
Too often, it’s the people who are least prepared to navigate the financial aid system and most at risk of falling through the cracks shouldering the burden of verification, advocates say.
“This is a really difficult time for many students to even consider college when they have loss of family income, death in the family,” said Kim Cook, executive director of the nonprofit National College Attainment Network. “If we get students to continue down the path to keep their options open for college, hurdles and barriers like verification can so easily knock them off that path.”
The selection process for verification is opaque. The Education Department will not share the methodology but says these days it uses machine learning to target applicants with the highest statistical probability of errors.
Financial aid experts say students whose household income is low enough to qualify for Pell grants are audited at six times the rate of those who are ineligible. Students with an expected family contribution, or EFC, of $0, those who qualify for the most federal grant dollars, are most often selected.
Because of racial income and wealth disparities, those students tend to be Black and Latino, an observation of financial aid experts reflected in data compiled by The Post.
A decade’s worth of verification data by Zip code obtained through a freedom of information request shows that students in majority-Black and Latino neighborhoods are and continue to be targeted at a much higher rate than other communities per capita, despite the decrease in the number of students audited since 2010.
From 2010 through 2020, there have been more than 68,307,000 application checks, about a third of the total applications.
Though Black-majority communities make up 4 percent of that total, data obtained through an open records request reveal that the rate at which these communities are reviewed was on average 1.8 times higher than the rate in White-majority neighborhoods. The rate for Black majority Zip codes was 203 reviews for every 10,000 residents in 2020, compared to majority-White Zip codes with 116 reviews per the same rate.
Majority-Latino communities are reviewed on average 1.4 times higher than majority-White Zip codes — with a rate of 181 reviews per capita.
The Post analyzed the data by grouping Zip codes together based on the majority race and ethnicity.
The disparate impact of the policy raises questions about whether the Education Department is reinforcing systemic racism through an expensive process with limited benefits.
If the goal is to make certain the right amounts of taxpayer dollars land in the right hands, then researchers say verification has long missed the mark.
A National College Attainment Network analysis of federal data found that when the Education Department selected fewer students in the 2019-20 FAFSA cycle, it actually prevented more improper payments than the prior cycle. This suggests high audit rates were inefficient.
Researchers also examined how often Pell awards increased or decreased through the audit. In the two most recent award years, more than 70 percent of students who completed verification experienced no change in their award. Only 3 percent of all applicants became ineligible for the grant. Applicants with an expected family contribution of $0 overwhelmingly retained the full award after being audited.
University of Richmond senior Jesse Amankwaah, 21, has been selected for verification almost every year of his undergraduate education. And every year, his award amount remains exactly the same, he said.
At first, Amankwaah believed everyone had to provide more documents after submitting the FAFSA. But the more he spoke to classmates about the ordeal, the more it seemed it was reserved for people with the greatest financial need like him.
“Being selected once, okay. But three times? It started to feel like they didn’t trust me, like they thought I was lying,” Amankwaah, a political science major, said.
Collecting tax transcripts and attesting to the inner workings of his household is so baked into his college experience that Amankwaah doesn’t think much about it these days. But early on, detailing what his parents could and could not afford was “disheartening,” he said.
“The precarious circumstance of living in an immigrant family meant that some information felt sensitive,” said Amankwaah, the son of Ghanaian immigrants. “It’s really even the simple questions like, ‘Who do you live with?’ and ‘How much money do you all make?’ It’s not something we talk about until the school asks. And seeing it all laid out on paper can be rather disheartening.”
The Education Department says it is trying to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars and not deter students from applying for federal grants and loans. It regularly reconfigures the verification model to reduce risks to both groups, lowering the percentage of people flagged from a high of 38 percent in the 2011-2012 FAFSA cycle to 22 percent in the last two rounds.
At a conference in December, the department told financial aid officers it would target no more than 18 percent of FAFSA filers for verification because the costs exceed the benefits when more people are selected. That means about 450,000 fewer FAFSA filers will be subjected to the audit this year.
Congress has also approved new steps that could further reduce the population in the future. The omnibus spending bill signed into law Dec. 27 includes a provision ensuring most applicants will no longer have to self-report income on the FAFSA, limiting the risk of errors. It builds on a 2019 law that makes it easier for the Education Department and the IRS to share tax return data.
“The fact that students will default to IRS data now will go a long way for those who are verified for income, but that’s only one category,” said Cook of the National College Attainment Network. Students, she noted, are also asked to verify the number of people in their household or in college, information that does not translate from IRS data.
Teresa Steinkamp, advising director at the nonprofit Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, has counseled many students who felt an equal amount of frustration and shame after the verification experience.
“We ask students — often those most vulnerable and marginalized by the inequities in our systems — to prove over and over again they need the money for college,” Steinkamp said. “And once they navigate these complicated barriers, the aid is often insufficient to cover the need they’ve verified they have.”
The Scholarship Foundation provides interest-free, fee-free loans to students with significant financial need in the St. Louis area. The loans are contingent upon students completing the FAFSA, so delays in the verification process can hold up the funds.
Edwards at Maryville University found herself in that predicament in the fall, but the funds cleared once her verification was completed. Advisors at the Scholarship Foundation and at the university have helped her identify additional aid to address her outstanding balance. The money is not enough to clear the books but lowered her balance enough that she could register for classes, Edwards said.