by Robyn Stewart, former financial aid officer at College of the Holy Cross
Many high school seniors and their families selected for financial aid verification are currently wondering, “What could the Financial Aid Office possibly want now?” May 1, the national deadline to deposit at your chosen college is looming in the not-so-distant future, and yet some students are still submitting additional information to the aid offices on their college list. “Didn’t we already send them this?” families may ask as they jump through what they perceive to be another hoop on the road to receiving financial aid. Remember, the financial aid process is an exchange of information for dollars: your financial information for financial aid dollars. Don’t be discouraged! Your financial aid offer is on the way, but you may have a few extra steps to take.
Common questions from students who are selected for verification include:
Why was I selected for financial aid verification?
Students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to apply for financial aid from a college. Some students are asked for documentation to support the information that was provided on the FAFSA in a process called verification. This extra documentation is used to authenticate the information on the FAFSA and make corrections if needed. Students are selected for verification by the federal processor based on a risk model that identifies error-prone data elements or by the college, either as a matter of policy or if they find incomplete, seemingly contradictory, or estimated information on their FAFSA. As a former financial aid officer, it was commonplace for me to request a copy of a current bank statement or have a family verify the resources and expenses of their household if data on their aid application seemed inconsistent. Sometimes there was a logical explanation for the apparent inconsistency. Sometimes application data needed to be corrected.
What should I do if I am selected for verification?
Don’t worry! Being selected for financial aid verification does not mean you will not qualify for financial aid. It just means additional paperwork is required. The college aid office will alert you to what information they need, and the financial aid awarding process comes to a halt until any required documentation is provided. Simply provide the requested documentation as soon as possible, and the financial aid process will move forward seamlessly.
What is the IRS Data Retrieval Tool and when should I use it?
The IRS Data Retrieval Tool was created so families could import income and tax information directly into the FAFSA. When a parent or student elects to use the tool, the FAFSA conducts a data match with the IRS. A successful match eliminates any reporting errors or processing delays. Incoming freshmen who have to file the FAFSA well in advance of tax deadlines can later update their income information using the IRS tool. If you haven’t used the IRS Data Retrieval Tool and you find yourself selected for verification, you must utilize the tool or may be required to submit an official IRS Tax Transcript to the college’s aid office to verify your income data.
How will a school know if I am telling the truth?
The penalty for financial aid fraud can consist of fines up to $20,000, prison time, or both. In a post-Varsity Blues world, colleges are more attune to deception than ever, and Financial Aid Officers take their jobs seriously. They are obligated to adhere to federal guidelines when administering financial aid, and the verification process helps them complete the task. Students should remember this as they open another pesky letter asking for one more thing from the college’s aid office. There is a reason for this inquiry and there is a light at the end of the verification tunnel. Simply provide the requested information, and your financial aid offer will soon be on its way.