The Education Department enacted a significant but temporary change to how it reviews federal student aid applications on Tuesday, marking a shift that could ease burdens advocates say fall hardest on low-income and minority students.
The department will narrow its financial aid verification procedures to focus on identity theft and fraud during the 2021-22 award year — a step that will make it easier for millions of students to access federal aid and remove some challenges faced by financial aid administrators, according to the agency. The department said its move carries particular importance after the Covid-19 pandemic hammered college undergraduate enrollment.
“This has been an exceptionally tough year,” said Richard Cordray, the chief operating officer of the department’s Federal Student Aid office, in a statement.
Focusing on identity theft and fraud this aid cycle "ensures we address immediate student needs, continue to protect the integrity of the Federal Pell Grant Program, and reduce barriers to access for underserved students,” he said.
Advocates celebrate: “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, which has called on the department to overhaul its verification process.
More than three million potential Pell Grant recipients, and only those eligible for Pell Grants, are selected for verification each year, according to the Education Department. The administrative process requires student aid applicants to submit additional documentation, such as tax return information, to verify their income and other information they report on their federal aid applications.
But the department has acknowledged the process disproportionately burdens students from low-income backgrounds and students of color. It's been especially difficult for the estimated 20 percent of Pell-eligible applicants who make so little income that they’re exempt from tax filing and therefore struggle to add verified income data from the IRS onto their FAFSA forms.
“This cycle's changes are more important than ever in these times of exacerbated inequities from the pandemic,” said Kim Cook, the executive director of the National College Attainment Network, in a statement.
“Additionally, this relief also helps our advisers and school counselors to better focus their time on outreach and support to students to stay on track for their postsecondary goals. This is especially important as we seek to build back from historic college enrollment drops of over 10% for students from low-income backgrounds,” she said.
Looking ahead: Cordray said the administration will continue to evaluate longer-term improvements to make the verification process “more equitable while still preventing fraud.”