We know that a college credential is important to career and life success for Tennessee students, and with many students needing financial assistance — scholarships, grants, loans — to realize their higher education goals, obtaining financial aid usually means submitting the FAFSA, also known as the Free Application For Federal Student Aid.

The process of filing the FAFSA requires that students have access to family tax returns and an internet connection. FAFSA applications are challenging — and everyone knows it. But massive relief for students was just announced by the US Department of Education; the department will waive verification requirements for most of the information that federal aid applicants must provide during the 2021-22 enrollment cycle. 

Verification — the process used to confirm that data reported on the FAFSA form is accurate — is an enormous barrier that disproportionately hinders low-income applicants and applicants from underrepresented groups. 

With community colleges enrolling low-income students at rates that surpass the national average, students at two-year colleges feel the effects of verification more than students at any other type of institution. Southwest Tennessee Community College serves the highest percentage of Black students and Pell-eligible students of any Tennessee community college. The college’s director of financial aid, Dr. Sherita Robertson, says this lift on verification would help more students stay on the path to college.

“The verification of income and household size falls disproportionately on low-income students who qualify for the federal Pell Grant,” saysRobertson. “Collecting and submitting tax documentation and questioning household information has been a deterrent to enrolling low-income students in community colleges and four-year institutions.” 

After going through the time and effort to complete the challenge of submitting the FAFSA form, the additional step of verification can end the college process for some students.

“When students are selected for verification and required to submit tax and household size information, some become exasperated and decide not to attend college,” says Robertson. 

While Robertson doesn’t expect this change to become permanent, she says it could lead to the department modifying verification, possibly to look at prior year income and household information on the FAFSA and only select students for verification where there are noticeable discrepancies.

At any rate, Robertson says this temporary change to the process has lifted a burden on students and will allow offices like hers to process student aid more efficiently. And that means more students can stay on track to achieve their postsecondary goals.

Dr. Shawn Boyd is SCORE’s postsecondary program and engagement manager. Diane Hughes, SCORE’s communications manager, contributed to this post.