I’ve got a good one for you this time: an interview with a financial aid director— and of the biggest school in the state, no less! Justin Chase Brown has been at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln since 2015 and is a first-generation college student. He is deeply knowledgeable of the financial aid process and its issues facing students and families— all of this and a really nice guy, if I do say so myself!
Let’s get to it then, Justin!
Q: First off, what exactly is verification?
A: Verification is a process by which colleges and universities review whether the information reported on the FAFSA was accurate. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) notifies schools who they have selected for verification and it is the responsibility of the school to work with students to complete the process.
Q: Just who requires it and why?
A: ED requires it in order to ensure federal funds are directed to the appropriately eligible students as determined by federal law. While the federal government does not tell us exactly how they select students for verification, it can be assumed through historical context that it is based on the types of files that have shown to have more inaccuracies in the past, such as those who have reported they estimated income tax information rather than using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, and those who qualify or who are close to qualifying for federal need-based financial aid to ensure there are no improper payments.
Q: What specific documents or information are generally required as part of verification?
A: Generally, students must submit tax documents, such as tax return or transcripts (or tax data via the IRS Data Retrieval Tool) and W2’s. Depending on the situation, students may be required to submit additional documentation if there is conflicting information. There are certain items that ED requires schools to verify and other items that schools choose to verify for a variety of reasons, including conflicting information and independent status.
Q: What can happen if a student doesn’t complete verification? Is there a deadline?
A: Schools can set specific verification deadlines and some aid deadlines are based on the payment period, so if a student completes verification after a particular payment period, they may not be able to receive certain types of aid, such as student loans, but still receive the Federal Pell Grant, if eligible. If students do not complete verification, federal aid is not disbursed, meaning the student will owe the funds to the college’s business office.
Q: In working with families, I am often asked: “Why do I seem to get verified each year?” Can you offer any insight into why this happens?
A: Because verification is not random, it is likely that if you are selected once, you may be selected again if your financial situation remains the same. If you are selected for multiple years, it is likely because you fit a profile of applicants that typically have inaccuracies and/or because you are a recipient of a federal need-based grant or near the cutoff for eligibility.
Q: Lastly, what recommendations do you have for making the process as painless as possible? Perhaps particularly in light of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool outage?
A: On April 24th, ED announced it will be allowing verification relief for students in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years. Because the IRS Data Retrieval Tool is not available and will be out of commission, this flexibility provided to schools will be very helpful! For 2016-17 and 2017-18, schools will not be required to verify non-filer status and are also not required to only accept federal tax transcripts. Instead, the new guidance allows the schools to use signed tax returns from students and/or parents in order to verify information. This is a huge relief for students, especially those who already had trouble accessing their IRS tax transcript.
Thanks for your insights, Justin, and your work on behalf of students and their families!