Citing the continuing impact of COVID-19, the Department of Education extended its Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) verification waiver on May 18, 2022.
Each academic year, millions of students fill out FAFSA applications to become eligible for their share of the $112 billion handed out by the Federal Office of Student Aid annually. With so great an amount of money available for the taking, some students have resorted to fraud (e.g. lying about their race, expected family contribution, or marital status) in order to obtain a larger disbursement.
Until the pandemic, the normal process for combatting FAFSA fraud involved selecting as many as 38% of filers and asking them to perform a verification of all their information.
Now, however, the Department of Education is extending the policy change set forth in a July 13, 2021, letter. That change waives verification for all FAFSA information save “Identity/Statement of Educational Purpose” and “High School Completion Status.”
The problem with the DOE’s COVID-hardship reasoning is that it lacks any limiting principle.The DOE is also verifying fewer filers. During the 2021-22 academic year, only 18 percent of forms were audited.
Thanks to the July 13 waiver, students selected for verification can even avoid in-person submission and signing. Instead, students can now upload electronic copies of required documents and use an electronic signature or a signature photo to sign the submitted document.
For their own part, colleges may still require as much verification as they desire before awarding funds, so long as they use “consistently applied” methods.
The Department of Education has stated that it is waiving most verification in order to “provide relief to millions of students and colleges [due to] the ongoing national emergency.” Until the waiver period expires (if ever), the DOE will focus “strictly on identity and fraud.”
The problem with the DOE’s COVID-hardship reasoning is that it lacks any limiting principle. Due to the rippling effects of COVID-19 and the corresponding lockdowns, the agency could continue to use the pandemic as a justification for bad policy years after normal conditions have resumed.
Yet despite its flawed motives, the department’s waiver does not come without practical benefits. Completing FAFSA forms can be time-consuming and confusing and frustrating. The form is one more complicated (yet important) task on a college applicant’s intimidating checklist.
The DOE’s waiver is also a relief to many of the poorest college students, who qualify for the most federal aid in the form of Pell Grants. These students, who report no expected family contribution on their FAFSAs, are typically selected most often for verification.
The verification process is intended to keep the federal government from making improper disbursements of taxpayer money. According to Wayne Kruger, director of St. Petersburg College’s financial aid office, verification season used to be a constant bustling strain for the office and its student customers. Kruger happily announced that, after the waiver, the process sped up dramatically, and the office was able to address individual needs much better.
Nevertheless, we must not forget why the original verification process existed in the first place. The verification process is intended to keep the federal government from making improper disbursements of taxpayer money. Will the extended waiver help the DOE to achieve that goal? Auditing a high percentage of filings created an incentive for students to file their FAFSAs honestly. Will the decreased verification rate allow fraud to run rampant?
Whatever the eventual outcome, a simplification of FAFSA is pending. Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act on December 27, 2020. According to the National College Attainment Network, this act, once implemented, will “reduce the overall number of questions on the FAFSA form” and “expand the group of students who are exempt from reporting their (or their family’s) assets.”
Thanks to this new, simplified process, verifying FAFSA forms might become simpler, as well, thus making any further verification waivers less necessary. Yet the Department would do well to heed John F. Kennedy (borrowing from G. K. Chesterton): “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.”
Keller Moore is a rising freshman at Thales College, where he will study the classical liberal arts and entrepreneurial business, and a summer ’22 intern at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.