Blog Post by:
Joseph Maus, tnAchieves Mentor
Before I dive further into this subject, you are probably wondering who this random guy is who is going to give you a crash course into, arguably, one of the worst parts of the FAFSA process. Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Joseph Maus (“Mouse”, just like Mickey!), and I have recently undergone the FAFSA Verification Process. This is my first year as a tnAchieves mentor, and I became involved in the program to help ensure that every high school student has the opportunity to pursue higher education. Outside of tnAchieves, I am loving every second of being a newly-wed and diving deep into my Master’s in Public Administration that I hope to put to good use in my career as a police officer in suburban Chattanooga.
Flash back to the fall of 2015 – my last semester of undergraduate work. I had managed to make it through the previous four years of college unscathed until I received the dreaded verification email from the University of Tennessee: “You’ve been selected for FAFSA Verification. Please read the following email in its entirety to satisfy the requirements of this process.” Here we go, folks! Hang on tight as we dive into this process.
It really is not that bad, especially knowing what I do now about it. FAFSA Verification is a process outlined by the US Department of Education in conjunction with the contracted funds distributer and the college/university’s financial aid office. It is basically what it sounds like: verification of the data that the student reported in their Free Application for Federal Student Aid. While the process and its individual steps vary by school, the principles remain the same: using the provided federal worksheet, you have to track down the required documentation and submit it before a set of provided deadlines. If you fail to heed the verification notification or miss deadlines, you risk losing your current federal aid and any future chances of being awarded more.
WHY ME?! Verification is a wild beast, and there are quite a few agencies and people who can flag an application for verification. The good news is that most of these verifications are tied back to two simple things: random selection or mistakes on the FAFSA. With random selection, college/university financial aid offices are given a certain percentage of applications to audit. When there is a mistake, a discrepancy exists between what is reported on the FAFSA and what is listed on the most recent IRS Tax Return. Any discrepancies will cause the application to be flagged for verification.
In my verification experience, I ran into an issue with my marital status. When I filed my taxes in January, I was single. When I completed my FAFSA in March, I was married. Therefore, while it was not an issue specifically dealing with the IRS Tax Return or FAFSA, the information simply didn’t line up. So, we enjoyed a month and a half of tracking down everything from W-2’s to birth certificates and our marriage license (which had not even arrived yet!).
Okay, I know you are probably thinking to yourself: “How does this help me help my student?” Our role here as mentors is to help motivate and encourage our students. To me, there would be nothing worse than to see a student work so hard on college applications, the FAFSA, and the first few weeks of school, then to find out that his or her federal aid may be taken away if he or she does not find one or more of a (seemingly) million different types of documents. Many documents are ones that the average 18-year-old has never heard of and may not know where to begin looking. (Who knew you had to stand in line at an IRS office to get a tax transcript!?)
Here are a few key tips to staying ahead of the curve after your student tells you that he or she been selected for FAFSA Verification:
- This is key for most everything in college, especially in money matters: EMAIL, EMAIL, EMAIL! Encourage your students to use their college/university assigned email. It is imperative that they check this email at least once a day. I encourage (and help if needed) my students to sync their email account on their phones, tablets, etc. for seamless communication with the business office, financial aid office, and professors.
- Make sure that your students meet the verification deadlines. Failure to meet these deadlines will cause them to lose their current TN Promise funding (and potentially other forms of aid). It may also make future student aid difficult to obtain.
- Support your students! We exist to support them as they hurdle through some of the trickiest of times. Encourage your students to follow through on the process! Unfortunately, we cannot go to the IRS Office and wait to get a tax transcript or to help their parents track down other a family member’s proof of college enrollment. This is a job with which the school’s financial aid office may be able to assist. But we can keep encouraging our students to follow up and follow through. A bit of extra time could mean the difference between having present and future aid and having none at all.
The FAFSA Verification Process has an ugly stigma. While it is a pain, it does not have to be the “end-all-be-all” for students. As mentors, we really need to encourage and push our students to work with their schools’ financial aid office and their parents (if applicable) to overcome this temporary hurdle. It is not pleasant, but it is not quite as horrible as my friends made it out to be. Encouragement and support could mean the difference between success and failure for some students. I would hate to see some red tape keep anyone from furthering their education, especially for something like FAFSA Verification.