Low-income students tend to face more barriers to higher education than their middle- and upper-class peers. Federal financial aid is supposed to help clear the way.
But part of the financial aid process, called verification, ensnares many low-income students in a confusing web of red tape.
Jesendra Tatum is one example. After graduating from Milwaukee School of Languages in 2018, Tatum planned to start college right away. She always wanted to be a veterinarian.
“I had my future planned since I was like six,” Tatum said. “I really wanted to go to UW-Whitewater. That was always my dream university to go to. So, my plan was to go to college and get my Ph.D., so I can become a vet and then open my own business. I was very excited for that.”
But Tatum encountered an unexpected challenge after she filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The federal government had selected her for verification.
Verification is like an audit. It requires students to send colleges additional tax forms and paperwork backing up their claims of financial need. It’s meant to prevent improper payments, whether made by mistake or due to fraud.
College access advocates like Kim Cook have been raising concerns about the verification process for years. Cook leads the National College Access Network. She points out that verification disproportionately affects low-income students, who are eligible for federal Pell Grants.
“Because the federal government’s exposure or liability for improper payments is mostly around that federal Pell Grant,” Cook said. "So they target the potential recipients of it to make sure that all of those recipients are indeed eligible."
As a whole, about 30 percent of FAFSA filers are selected for verification. But Cook says about half of Pell-eligible filers are subject to verification most years.
The number may be even higher in Milwaukee, according to Somkhit Boonheuan. He works for the local branch of College Possible, which helps low-income high schoolers navigate the college admissions process.
Boonheuan says 85 to 90 percent of the students College Possible works with have to jump through the verification hoops.
“The FAFSA was created to help more students attend college because it was providing them financial assistance,” Boonheuan said. “So this almost feels backwards, because a process that was meant to help is almost what’s preventing them from attending.”
The Department of Education doesn’t publicize data about the percentage of students flagged for verification who don’t end up enrolling in college. But the National College Access Network estimates it’s about 25 percent. They call it "verification melt."
That’s what happened to Tatum, the aspiring veterinarian and Milwaukee Public Schools graduate.
“They wanted my mother’s tax transcripts, her I-9 forms. They wanted my student income verification for my old job. They wanted my tax forms, my W2s,” Tatum said. “It was kind of confusing about why I had to be put through that.”
Tatum had set her sights on UW-Waukesha. She spent the summer trying to get all the paperwork figured out. But the process still wasn’t complete by the time classes started, so she unenrolled.
“I’m like, well I’m not going to go to a school when I don’t know if I’m getting financial aid or what I’m getting, if I can even afford it,” Tatum said.
The Department of Education knows that verification sometimes results in stories like these. At a 2017 conference in Orlando, top Federal Student Aid official A. Wayne Johnson told college financial aid officers that he heard their concerns about verification.
“I’ve heard it at least 40 times now and it resonates with me every time I hear it," Johnson said. "Why do we have to make poor people prove that they’re poor in multiple different ways? It makes no sense.”
Last month, the Education Department took a significant step to ease the verification burden. It told colleges that they could be more flexible about paperwork. For example, instead of asking students to provide IRS tax transcripts, they can turn in signed tax returns.
College access advocates are happy about the new guidelines. But for students like Tatum, the damage of delaying college has already been done.
“I thought the most difficult thing, what I was always told, was the transition from high school to college,” Tatum said. “But the hardest thing for me was just applying and getting the financial aid to go.”
Tatum plans to go to college eventually. She hopes to enroll at MATC next year. But she is dreading filling out the FAFSA again.
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