FAFSA Verification Alternatives Help Students, NCAN Members Say

July 6, 2017

By Courtney Argenti, Graduate Policy Intern

Download NCAN’s full Pulse Check report.

On April 24, 2017, the U.S. Department of Education granted institutions of higher education the flexibility to accept alternative documentation for student Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) verification. For tax filers, such documentation includes a signed tax return in place of a tax transcript to verify income. Non-filers can use a signed letter in place of a Verification of Non-Filing (VONF) letter, in addition to a copy of IRS Form W-2. These temporary alternatives were allowed during the 2017-18 FAFSA cycle in light of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) outage, and officials have not yet decided whether they will stay in effect for 2018-19.

Verification alternatives make the FAFSA verification process easier and faster for students who are able to take advantage of them, according to 87 college access professionals from NCAN member organizations who completed a survey about the alternatives’ impact on their students. However, NCAN’s Pulse Check report also showed that many students selected for verification could not benefit from the new flexibility afforded by federal officials because their colleges did not accept alternative documentation or did not clearly communicate the new changes. These two factors — institutional discretion to not implement verification flexibilities, and poor communication of the changes — negatively affected many students.

While challenges do exist, officials should not overlook the successes of verification flexibility when considering whether to allow the alternatives in the 2018-19 FAFSA cycle starting Oct. 1: 60 percent of survey respondents said their students took advantage of alternative documentation. Importantly, the majority of college access professionals agreed that alternatives eased and expedited verification for their students: 67 percent agreed that the process was easier and 57 percent felt the process was faster.

One college access professional explained, “Allowing students to use verification alternatives made the FAFSA process many times easier and took less time processing their financial aid package. If these measures had not [been] in place, it would have been very challenging to get students’ aid processed in a timely manner.”

Another individual explained how alternatives especially benefit low-income students: “Signed tax returns and a signed letter for VONF are CRUCIAL for low-income students who don't always have access to their emails (especially over the summer) or have frequent changes of address or complicated addresses (they may know their apartment to be listed as "A," but it is registered as "1st Floor" with their tax documents). For my students whose schools cooperated with the flexibility, they are grateful to have the financial aid they deserve.”

On the other hand, the story was much different for college access professionals whose students were not afforded this flexibility.

Only one-third of survey respondents said that all colleges their students attend or will attend accepted alternative documentation for FAFSA verification, and the majority of respondents (54 percent) said just some colleges allowed it. Surprisingly, 9 percent said zero schools did.

One college access professional explained, “No schools allowed the alternative documentation and I suspect it would have made verification easier and faster but since it was up to the schools to decide, I only encountered schools that still required the harder-to-access documents and it made the verification deadline a total headache as it always is. Letting the schools decide what they will accept wasn't helpful for my students.”

More bluntly put from another individual, “It did not work ... colleges just asked for the old style of verification, which is a disaster!!!!!”

Even when the institutions accepted alternative documents, many college access professionals encountered another obstacle: Only 19 percent of survey respondents agreed that colleges clearly communicated the verification changes to their students.

This insufficient communication made for an even longer verification process: “It prolonged the process because it was not clear and then by the time you find the documents and get them to the college it was a much longer process. We all know adding time is money,” an anonymous college access professional explained.

Another said, “This provided one more barrier for our students trying to further their education. There was such a mix-up in communication from the various colleges. If those of us that work with this daily have problems figuring out how to maneuver the system you can imagine how confusing and difficult it is for our students.”

As the 2018-19 FAFSA season approaches, these findings should be considered. Verification alternatives provide a quicker and easier solution for students and families when the process is clearly communicated with students and college access professionals. While the IRS DRT is expected to return for the next FAFSA cycle, not all students can access it based on their or their parents’ tax filing status. For these students, submitting alternative documents for FAFSA verification is a much quicker and easier process than obtaining official tax transcripts. Additionally, for non-tax filers who are independent students, it is particularly important that the option to provide a signed letter remain available, as obtaining the VONF letter is burdensome and time-consuming.

Download NCAN’s full Pulse Check report.

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