To freeze ‘summer melt’ in its tracks, Congress must fix the FAFSA
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As we reach the zenith of summer, students all over the country are preparing to buy school supplies, get their textbooks, and head to campus for the start of fall semester. But some students who intend on attending college this fall, won’t make it. This phenomenon, known as “summer melt,” is all too common. But what causes students, who seem otherwise prepared, to “melt” away rather than matriculate? For too many it’s the overly complex process of applying for and receiving student aid funding.

While we have made significant gains to simplify the application for federal financial aid, we have a long way to go to simplify the process for obtaining that aid. Navigating the intricacies of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, can be challenging — particularly for students who don't fit the "mold" of a traditional student. But on the heels of completing the FAFSA comes another daunting and often redundant task: verifying that the FAFSA information is correct.

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At the discretion of the Department of Education, schools are required to complete verification, a process intended to improve the accuracy of students’ FAFSA data and ensure that the right students get the right amount of money. But the process has instead created a complicated web of questionable steps for the families who are most in need of financial aid. Frustratingly, this has continued over the last decade even as modifications that were intended to make the verification process easier have in many instances made the process worse.

Over the last 10 years, the Education Department has made numerous changes with the intent of reducing verification burden. But the changes have come as more of a “one step forward, two steps back” pattern. The department in 2012-13 promised to create a more targeted, fine-tuned system, but then simultaneously increased the number of data elements that would be subject to verification and removed a 30 percent cap that limited the total number of students that would need to go through the verification process at each institution. In the end, the fine-tuning came up short while the amount of data elements and numbers of students selected for verification soared.  

Verification deters some students from ultimately enrolling in college, a circumstance some have started to call “verification melt.” According to data from the Department of Education, slightly more than half of students eligible for the Pell Grant — a federal student aid grant targeted at low-income students — were selected for verification in 2015-16. The National College Access Network estimates that more than 1 in 5 low-income students selected for verification will experience “verification melt” and never complete the process, effectively preventing them from obtaining the necessary funds to pursue a college degree or certificate.

Unenviably, it is often the Education Department that finds itself trying to balance competing congressional mandates that seek to maintain program integrity on one hand and while also making student aid funds available to needy families. On the one hand, policymakers and student aid advocates want financial aid dollars to make it to the right students with as little burden as possible. On the other, lawmakers and student aid critics are quick to pounce on any anecdotes of financial aid abuse, misuse, or misappropriation.  

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.

A one-size-fits-all application for financial aid is not realistic given the diversity of today’s student population. NASFAA has proposed creating a tiered application that offers applicants a customized set of questions, rather than sticking with a blanket approach for applicants from all income levels. The more complex a family’s financial status, the more data would be required from them. But by expanding the information that can be imported via the IRS, all applicants would have fewer questions to complete.

Low-income students already face incredible challenges when it comes to preparing for and being accepted into college. Securing the financial means to pay for that education should not be one of them.

Justin Draeger is president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.