News: Financial Aid

Verification Melt Rate Ticks Up to 25 Percent

Monday, November 12, 2018  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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Students who submit and complete a FAFSA too often find an obstacle to obtaining the federal Pell Grant that could help them pay for college: verification. FAFSA verification is a review process designed to prevent improper payments by the federal government.

Roughly half of Pell-eligible FAFSA applicants are flagged for verification, and last year we estimated that 22 percent of those selected in the 2015-16 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.

Using data from the 2016-17 Federal Pell Grant Program End-of-Year Report, we estimate that the rate of verification melt climbed to 25 percent, which represents an estimated 104,000 low-income seniors.

Verification melt examines the different rates at which low-income students whose FAFSAs are and are not selected for verification receive a Pell Grant. The verification process requires students and their families to provide documentation supporting responses provided during FAFSA completion. In the 2016-17 award year, 81 percent of low-income students who completed a FAFSA and were not selected for verification received a Pell Grant, compared to 56 percent of students who were selected for verification.

NCAN's 2017 Leaky FAFSA Pipeline infographic drew attention to the alarmingly large number of low-income high school seniors who NCAN estimates will not enroll in college using a Pell Grant. Many explanations exist for this.

More than 45 percent of these students may not ever submit a FAFSA, which is the first step toward obtaining a Pell Grant for which their family’s income level would assure them. Students may not submit a FAFSA because they do not know how or that doing so is even an option. They may be debt-averse or think their credit is too low. They may not be pursuing college. They may find the form complicated and become discouraged.

The college access field works every day to solve these awareness and aspiration problems, but verification melt is a more odious obstacle. Verification is not well understood, making it challenging to propose solutions at the policy level to help individual students. To address this problem, NCAN has a forthcoming white paper that will demystify the verification process and propose solutions to decrease the burden on students and institutions alike.

The Leaky FAFSA Pipeline infographic below is updated with the newest numbers and estimates we can find.

NCAN’s verification melt figure has raised awareness among policymakers, the media, and other stakeholders about the impact of this process on students’ access to the Pell Grant. Dr. A. Wayne Johnson, Federal Student Aid’s chief strategy and transformation officer, notably said during NCAN’s national conference in Pittsburgh in September, “The purpose is not to get a whole bunch of people to fill [the FAFSA] out only to be stymied in the last step of the verification process. It is something we are critically focused on. None of us wants to see 25 percent of those picked for verification drop out.” He went on to say: "It is absolutely ridiculous for us to have to ask poor people to prove, once again, that they're poor."

The spotlight on verification is coming at an important moment because data over time suggest it may be worsening.

The chart below examines data from Federal Pell Grant Program End-of-Year Reports dating back to the 2007-08 award year, which incidentally was the last year we saw a verification rate similar to today’s. The chart also shows the verification melt rate more than doubling between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 award years and ticking up three percentage points in the 2016-17 award year.

Two years do not make a trend, to be sure. However, it is worth remembering the hiccups in the verification algorithm that caused verifications to spike early in the last FAFSA cycle. NCAN members reported both widespread student confusion and difficulty in helping so many more of them to navigate the verification process. Given recent history and reports, it would be unsurprising to see verification melt at or above the same level for the 2017-18 award year when data on it comes out sometime in 2019.

All of this is particularly disconcerting because of the lack of evidence that verification prevents improper payments. The problem isn’t that we know verification doesn’t accomplish this goal, it’s that we don’t have any data that show definitively one way or another whether it does or doesn’t. Is putting half of all Pell-eligible FAFSA filers through this process worthwhile, given the steep cost of a quarter of them melting out of the process entirely? Verification data are largely in a black box at this time. It is only through a few snippets from the Pell Grant Program End-of-Year Report that we are able to piece together the grim picture we currently have.

Policymakers must recognize this leak in the FAFSA completion pipeline and find a fix that plugs that hole. NCAN looks forward to helping them do so however we can. Students who demonstrate postsecondary aspirations and complete the FAFSA deserve better than to face an onerous process that may derail them; they deserve the federal financial aid that can help to make their postsecondary dreams a reality.

For resources, tips, and tools to help you with your FAFSA completion efforts, check out the revamped Form Your Future website.