It was 9 p.m. on an August night in southern California, and I was about to get my favorite burrito. I had spent the day with friends at Shawe’s Cove, my go-to beach tucked beneath the mansions in Laguna Beach. The moment I took my first bite of Carne Asada, my friend asked: “Have you gotten your financial aid?” Confused, and a little upset she was bringing up financial aid when I hadn’t even had a chance to finish chewing, I hesitantly replied “Uhh, I’m not sure — have you?”
It turns out that for most UC-Riverside students, financial aid for the upcoming school year had been released a few days before. When I checked my bank account the next day, I had not received my reimbursement from my financial aid package.
As a senior who depends on financial aid, I’ve filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA — the form required by the federal government in order to receive grants and loans for college — three times previously and never had a problem. But after digging through old emails, I found one I’d missed from my school’s financial aid office earlier in the summer stating “Financial Aid App Incomplete.” After logging into my school’s student web portal, I finally found the reason my aid was being withheld: I had been selected for verification.
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Verification, or the auditing of student financial aid applications for additional review, is routine — even when the original information is correct. The Department of Education selects roughly 30 percent of financial aid recipients’ applications to verify, but the information they choose to review varies. I was audited for my dependency status, so over the course of the past couple of months, I have submitted my mother’s original tax returns to my financial aid office, resubmitted them with specific IRS documents after they were rejected, and then waited for weeks while they were reviewed by my school’s financial aid office. All told, the documents and late fees cost about $150
Unfortunately, my situation is far from unique. The 2018-2019 application cycle saw an unusually high number of verifications due to an algorithm adjustment from the Department of Education. The algorithm change, combined with the repeal of the 30 percent cap on audits — removed in anticipation of the new algorithm — has caused the number of verifications to skyrocket. At my own university, where more than half of students receive Pell Grants, a financial aid counselor reported that 8,000 students were selected for verification — more than double the 3,000 who went through the verification process last year.
Data show that 98 percent of students picked for verification are low-income, and that about half of students that are eligible for a federal Pell Grant are selected. About 95 percent of students that successfully make it through verification have no change in their aid, but many students do not make it through the process. According to the National College Access Network, in the 2015-16 academic year — before the verification numbers spiked — 90,000 low-income students were not able to complete the verification process and receive aid.
Even students who make it through the process face delays that could be critical for those who are struggling to afford their rent, groceries, and school expenses. For me, going back to school involved taking a giant leap of faith. By the time I arrived in D.C. for the fall semester I was still without any financial aid. I spent my second day in D.C. calling my financial aid office, student business services, and the center where I would be staying. I was terrified that if my aid didn’t come through, I would be forced to drop the program.
After two hours of fighting my way through busy signals, I finally managed to find myself in queue. I was on hold for several more hours until someone told me that they had received my paperwork, but had not yet flagged it to be seen by an administrator.
This process took a total of nearly 10 weeks to complete. If it weren’t for working both during summer and the quarter, family support, and guidance from financial aid counselors at my school, I would not have been able to make it to this point. As a first-generation college student whose family never left the town were they grew up, the 11 or so weeks I would spend more than 2,000 miles away from home might as well be 11 years.
But I am one of the lucky ones. For more than 90,000 other students like me, this all ended very different.