News: College Access & Success

'College was my end goal, but I did not anticipate the many obstacles I would face getting there.'

Monday, December 10, 2018  
Posted by: Lindsay Broderick, Staff Writer
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While in high school, Dorothy Nolan participated in College Possible’s program to support college-bound high schoolers. The organization provided her with coaching on all aspects of the processes to apply for college and financial aid. She attended after-school sessions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA; the steps of the FAFSA verification process; and scholarship and college applications.

This past school year, as Dorothy was filling out her FAFSA and college applications, a coach gave her individual support with the verification process after she was flagged. FAFSA verification is an audit-like review process in which the office of Federal Student Aid requires some financial aid applicants to submit additional materials to prove that the information contained in their FAFSA is accurate. This process can be difficult for students to navigate – as outlined in NCAN's recent white paper on verification – even if they have help, like Dorothy did.

Colleges requested that Dorothy provide a Verification of Non-filing Letter to prove she does not file taxes as well as W-2s and tax transcripts from her parents. However, Dorothy lives with her mother who is on disability and does not file taxes. They participate in the SNAP program, through which the government verifies all of their income information.

Dorothy submitted her first tax form request to the IRS on Jan. 23. The form was mailed back because Dorothy’s mother had scratched out a typo with a pen. The IRS required them to submit a new form. The second form remained unanswered for weeks, so Dorothy and her mother took it upon themselves to visit the IRS building in person to request the non-filing statement.

"It was a long waiting time after sending the forms to get the verification that my mom doesn’t file, and there wasn’t much communication from the IRS," Dorothy said. "It was even more waiting time when the schools had to process the documents."

Trying to navigate school-specific financial aid processes proved to be an even more exhaustive process than getting in contact with the IRS.

"It was especially difficult being marked for verification when I applied to private schools that require the CSS profile, because it was way more in depth," said Dorothy. These school-specific processes required information Dorothy didn’t have, such as her mother’s W-2 forms or her father’s tax information.

The lengthy verification process put a tremendous delay on Dorothy’s financial aid packages.

Dorothy’s first financial aid package came in on March 7. She became increasingly frustrated as her top-choice schools granted her financial aid packages that did not meet her need. With the May 1 National College Decision Day approaching quickly, Dorothy had a small window to appeal her aid packages. Ultimately, she gave up on getting more financial aid and decided to attend a school that was more affordable but lower on her list.

"As a low-income student, I knew college was my end goal, but I did not anticipate the many obstacles that I would face getting there," Dorothy said. "Having to go through the process of verification sometimes felt defeating." Dorothy was flagged for verification at so many schools that she never received her financial aid packages from some of them, simply because their verification processes were too time-consuming or confusing.

Verification was the greatest obstacle to Dorothy’s college decision. "Without verification I could’ve had all [my] financial aid packages readily available to compare, confront any more existing financial obstacles, and come to a final decision sooner," she said.

And Dorothy is not alone. The verification process is a burden for many low-income students – roughly half of Pell-eligible FAFSA applicants are flagged for verification. NCAN estimates that 25 percent of those selected for the 2016-17 award year experienced "verification melt," or a failure to complete the verification process that derails a student’s receipt of a Pell Grant and other federal financial aid.

Luckily, this was not the case for Dorothy. This fall marked the start of her freshman year at the University of Nebraska Omaha. She will be studying biochemistry and hopes to one day be a pharmaceutical research scientist.