Applying for financial assistance is difficult. A new rule could make things more difficult.


Mississippi working-class students must complete an onerous application to receive college loans, and grants may take an extra step under a new rule proposed by the state office that oversees financial aid.

Beginning October 1, the Mississippi student financial aid office may ask students applying for the Higher Education Legislative Plan Grant for Needy Students (HELP) to provide additional documentation if their applications for assistance state and federal financial statements describe different household size and parental marital status. . These documents can be a rental agreement, marriage license, divorce decree, or death certificate.

The HELP scholarship is for students from working class families – those earning $ 39,500 or less. To qualify, students must complete the Mississippi Aid Application. But before they can do so, students must first complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and be deemed eligible for a full or partial Pell grant.

Both apps ask students to describe the size of their household.

In the event that a student submits conflicting information, OSFA will need to verify which description is correct, said Jennifer Rogers, director of OSFA, because her office uses household size to determine family income.

“A full tuition grant is extremely generous, and it should go to students who meet all of the eligibility criteria,” Rogers said. “To be good stewards of state resources, we have an obligation to ensure that students are completely honest in their request for their family’s resources.”

Rogers expects only a small number of HELP applicants to be affected by the new rule, which was approved by the Council on Post-Secondary Studies at its meeting in mid-April and which is currently going through the process of administrative review. His office did not pull exact numbers, but he estimates that about 3% of HELP applicants – between 100 and 150 students – indicated a different household size than the one they entered on the free app. federal student aid (FAFSA).

Still, proponents of university access say the policy could be yet another obstacle for working-class students seeking financial aid. While they recognize the importance of eliminating fraud, advocates question whether the benefit of preventing some students who do not need help from receiving it outweighs the potential cost: preventing students of the working class to get the help they need to go to college.

“Could there be families filling out forms with different information on purpose? Maybe there is, ”said Monica Keller, director of technical support at the National College Attainment Network (NCAN). “It’s a good thing (OSFA) will verify this.”

At the same time, Keller said, “every time you put that extra step into the process, it creates a barrier.”

Working-class students seeking help affording college already face a number of hurdles that their wealthier peers don’t face. Notably, they are also already more likely to have their requests for financial assistance verified by the federal government in a process called “verification”.

Each year, millions of students across the country are asked to submit additional documents so that the US Department of Education can verify that their FAFSA application is true, forms detailing what their families spend on rent, food and utilities within a month to a letter from a doctor confirming a disability.

Financial aid agents and college access advocates have long suspected that working-class students are being screened for verification at disproportionate rates. In February, the Washington Post obtained data confirming their intuition: the newspaper reported the federal government checks the financial aid applications of “students whose household income is low enough to qualify for Pell scholarships … at six times the rate of those who are not eligible.”

The Post also found that black and Latino students are audited at disproportionately higher rates than white students.

And yet, research suggests that the federal government may have an easier time eliminating fraud if it scrutinizes richer students as closely as working-class students.

A recent study by NCAN found that it is actually the wealthier students who are more likely to receive an inappropriate amount of financial aid due to false information on the FAFSA application. NCAN found that about 93% of FAFSA filers in the lowest income bracket – those with an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of zero – did not see their financial allowance change after verification.

“In comparison,” the report read, “FAFSA reporters who did not receive self-zero EFCs more often had a change in their assignment after verification,” at a rate of around 65%.

The new OSFA rule, although it looks like verification, is a little different. OSFA policy is triggered by conflicting information about the HELP app and the FAFSA, while the federal government will not share the methodology as to why some apps are verified and others not.

Nonetheless, supporters say the principle behind both processes is the same.

“Those who get the dollars will always be the ones who are watched the most,” Keller said. “We ask the poor time and time again to prove that they are poor, and that is just not fair.”

As a result, tens of thousands of students across the country are not receiving the financial aid they were likely qualified for, leading in some cases to dropping out of college or never attending.

This is what Lakisha, a single mother from Jackson County, feared would happen to her twins who are seniors in high school when she learns their financial aid applications were screened for verification. She waited over two weeks for a community college financial aid office to send her the forms she needed; when they finally arrived, Lakisha said the questions seemed like a waste of time.

“It was exactly the same things that I returned in the first place,” she said. “Why does he need the same questions? they should have had this stuff in the first place. Why did they ask me the same question over and over again? ”

While OSFA’s new policy may be well-intentioned, Lakisha said the thought of possibly being asked for additional documents, especially those relating to marital status, “sounds like punishment.”

“I don’t think they should judge you on your misadventures,” she said. “People’s situation is changing all the time – all the time. You never know when it’s going to change, you just don’t know.

Before OSFA began auditing HELP applications, Ann Hendrick, director of Get2College, said she would encourage the office to “Understanding the aspect of counseling and the trauma questions can bring. Hendrick pointed out that the harmless nature of the application questions – how much money does your family make, where did your parents go to college – can belie the potentially distressing situations behind the answers. She heard stories of blunt financial aid officers asking the selected students for verification painful questions like, “Why did your mother leave your stepfather and can you get a police report there?” subject?”

Ideally, rather than auditing an app, Hendrick said she would like to see OSFA align their app with the FAFSA, which is being streamlined for the 2023-2024 school year. She said it would reduce the burden on working-class families, as well as the time the OSFA will spend making sure these documents are true.

“A year from now all the rules are gearing up to change for the FAFSA,” Hendrick said. “It would be wise for the state financial aid office to align their processes with the FAFSA, as verification is time consuming and requires a lot of guidance.”

– Article credit to Molly Minta of Mississippi today


About Elizabeth Fisk

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