A Policy That Harms the Neediest Students

Nivine Megahed describes how three-quarters of her institution's students must verify their financial aid applications -- and the toll it has taken on them.

January 8, 2019
 
 
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Colleges and universities across the country are seeing a significant increase in the number of students the U.S. Department of Education selects for verification of their financial aid applications. In the past, about 30 percent of students who filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid were selected for verification that required students to provide evidence that the information they submitted was accurate.

This year, the Education Department flagged an astounding 75 percent of National Louis University’s freshman class of 640 students, and that has taken a harmful toll on many of them.

Other higher education institutions are reporting up to a threefold increase in verifications, and the students involved appear to be mainly Pell-eligible applicants. Moreover, the students who’ve been selected have generally come from low-income, underserved, first-generation families. Verification for these students often is the last straw, becoming the final obstacle that prevents them from starting or continuing their education.

Notably, the Education Department is acknowledging the barriers students face. On Dec. 20, the U.S. Senate passed the FAFSA Act, which has the potential to address some of those barriers and make higher education more accessible. If the bill becomes law, we anticipate it will streamline the financial aid process for many, though not all, students.

At National Louis University, we have deliberately designed our undergraduate experience to meet the needs of underserved students. With half of the children in Illinois living in low-income households (80 percent within the Chicago Public School System), we at the university believe it is our moral imperative to provide affordable programming for the population that often feels the road to economic opportunity is not available to them.

Among our undergraduates, the majority of whom are underresourced, the verifications have caused anxiety and tears, as students have had to wrestle with bureaucracy and request forms that often get delayed. Some students have to visit the IRS office, which can be intimidating for an 18-year-old. Most disturbing, however, are the cases of students who have been at risk of quitting college anyway due to financial or academic pressures. They frequently view the FAFSA pursuit as a rejection and decide to drop out. We have had too many students make that distressing choice.

The link between increased verifications and students delaying or abandoning higher education is clear. The National College Access Network found that only 56 percent of low-income students selected for verification go on to receive a Pell Grant, compared to 78 percent of students not selected for verification.

We understand the need for the Department of Education to perform due diligence to make sure financial aid goes to students who truly need it. But NCAN has reported that 95 percent of flagged students saw no change in their expected family contribution, which suggests there is little to no need for increased rates of verification.

It’s hard to believe that people who are facing some of the most difficult stressors, let alone poverty, are burdened with additional bureaucratic complexity that requires them to prove they are poor. And that burden, in fact, often prevents them from taking the next step toward improved economic mobility.

If our nation is to continue to be an economic power, a place of opportunity with a rich pipeline of diverse talent, we must stop making it so hard for people who are trying to improve their lives. Let us monitor whether the House of Representatives passes the FAFSA Act and the president signs it into law.

Bio

Nivine Megahed is president of National Louis University in Chicago.

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