The biggest driver of summer melt

Federal aid verification requests may contribute to summer melt

Each year, roughly 10% to 20% of incoming students are accepted to college, tell the school they intend to enroll, and may even pay a deposit, but then… never show up on campus.

The phenomenon, called summer melt, can cost colleges hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost tuition revenue—at a time when shifting demographics are already creating other challenges for recruitment and enrollment.

The problem is particularly acute among low-income students, who rely on scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid to make higher ed accessible, reports Ashley Smith for Inside Higher Ed.

Smith writes that a growing number of low-income students are being asked to verify income eligibility for federal aid by the Department of Education, and that students aren’t completing the application process as a result. This phenomenon—known as "verification melt"—prevents students from receiving millions of dollars of much-needed aid.

"How many times does a student or parent have to repeatedly prove they are poor," says Michael Bennett, associate vice president of financial assistance services at St. Petersburg College in Florida. "Verification for our lowest-income students is a barrier to access, and when aid is delayed because of excessive verification, access may be denied. Is this what we want?"

During each FAFSA application cycle, the Education Department aims to verify about 30% of all federal aid applicants, writes Smith. But the majority of applicants selected for verification come from low-income families. In fact, the National College Access Network (NCAN) estimates that 50% of low-income students are selected for verification, and of those selected, 22% won't finish applying for aid. 

And that figure is expected to rise. For example, at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), the number of FAFSA applicants selected for verification increased from 18.4% (7,526 students) in 2016 to 21% (8,660 students) in 2017. Of those students selected for verification in 2017, 49.9% (4,320 students) failed to complete the process.

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So why don't students complete verification?

Smith writes that not only is the process cumbersome, but also many students' complicated family structures make financial aid verification particularly challenging. Even more, students might be "afraid they have done something wrong by being selected and walk away," says Joan Zanders, director of financial aid at NOVA.

"Many of our students think when they get a verification notice that it's some kind of ineligibility notice," says Kim Cook, executive director of NCAN. "It's very frustrating for us as access and success advisers to get students to be aware of financial aid at the federal, state or institutional level, get them to complete the FAFSA, and then face this back-end burden that is actually harder than the FAFSA itself."

To prevent verification melt, student aid advocates are asking for more transparency in the filing process. And colleges are working with the Education Department to make the FAFSA easier for students to complete.

Karen McCarthy, a director of policy analysis at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, says officials are asking themselves, "Is this process actually doing what we want it to be doing, or is just making people jump through hoops and putting extra work on families and institutions to verify information that doesn’t change the dollar amount?"

"These students might have pulled off going to school and enrolling without a Pell Grant," says Cook. "And in our experience, that is unfortunately not sustainable" (Smith, Inside Higher Ed, 10/12; Black, Education Dive, 10/15).

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