Citing falling college enrollment during the pandemic, the Education Department has made temporary changes to its financial aid process so that students from low-income families face fewer barriers when applying for aid.
Fewer people applying for financial aid this year will need to complete a process called verification, the department announced Tuesday, a change it says will help approximately 200,000 more students from low-income backgrounds and students of color enroll in college. Though the change is just for the 2021-22 aid cycle, the department said it is considering long-term improvements to ensure the process is more equitable while still preventing fraud. This year, aid verification will focus only on suspected fraud or identity theft.
During verification, a portion of students who are eligible for need-based Pell Grants typically are asked to submit additional documentation, like tax returns, to verify their income and other information reported on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. Because some low-income families are exempt from filing file tax returns because their income is so low, the old review method could potentially deter students from completing the verification process. Applicants who fail to complete the verification process normally can’t receive student aid and may not be able to enroll in college as a result, the department said in a press release.
College undergraduate enrollment rates fell 4.9% in the spring as a result of the pandemic, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, with steeper declines for students of color and those from low-income households. Community colleges, in particular, have been hit hard, with enrollment down 9.5%. By focusing the verification process on potential cases of identity theft and fraud, the ED said it can reduce barriers to access for low-income students while also allowing its staff to focus on other tasks, like administering emergency relief funds.
"This has been an exceptionally tough year," said Richard Cordray, head of the Education Department’s Federal Student Aid office, in a statement released Tuesday. "We need to ensure students have the most straightforward path to acquiring the financial aid they need to enroll in college and continue their path to a degree."
Pell Grants, unlike student loans, do not have to be repaid in most cases. More than 3 million Pell Grant applicants are selected for verification each year under the typical process, ED said. People applying for student aid who don’t qualify for Pell Grants are not asked to verify their income.
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