Supporting students through verification: Five tips from Dell Scholars

It’s that time of year again: temperatures are dropping, leaves are changing color. FAFSA season has arrived.

This time last year, we saw a surge in the number of students being asked to verify information on their federal financial aid applications. Fifty percent of our 2018 Dell Scholars were pulled for verification, a trend seen among colleges and universities nationwide, as reported by the Washington Post.

While this process appears to be simply a mountain of paperwork and admin, practitioners supporting college students also know the human side of verification – which all too often involves tears, sleepless nights, and missed opportunities. While chasing down forms and waiting for updates, some students may miss out on first-come, first-served institutional aid. For others, the burdensome process and financial stress may reverse their plans for higher education altogether, a phenomenon so common it’s now known as “verification melt.”

After navigating the process with hundreds of students, we’ve seen the impact that our support can have on their college persistence. Heading back into FAFSA season, we wanted to share a few learnings we’ve picked up along the way.

1. Become a verification expert.

Attend seminars, follow the latest updates, and eat verification for breakfast!

Some of our top conference picks are the NASFAA National Conference, NSPA Annual Conference, and Federal Student Aid Training Conference. Follow the latest federal reports and updates, including trainings and resources through the Department of Education. Keep an eye out for training and resources from other college success professionals like UAspire. In verification as in all things student support, connecting with other practitioners will always point you towards new learnings to enhance your approach.

2. Step into your students’ shoes.

Become an end user yourself so you know exactly what your students are navigating, from applying to financial aid to gathering verification documents.

Make a FAFSA profile, set up your log-in for the National Student Loan Data System, and place an order for your IRS transcript (via mail, like your students without a major credit card, and online). With this first-hand knowledge, you’ll be better equipped to guide them step-by-step through the process.

3. Start early.

We request Student Aid Reports (SARs) of all scholarship semi-finalists.

Gathering financial aid information early – at our semi-finalist stage – helps in two important ways: one, we’re able to see early on if students have been pulled for verification, allowing us to intervene earlier. Secondly, we’re able to provide a value-add to some students that aren’t ultimately selected as Dell Scholars, furthering our greater goal of supporting low-income students’ college persistence.

4. Equip students with the knowledge to self-navigate.

How can we expand students’ financial aid literacy and confidence?

By the time students reach our Dell Scholars advisors, they know the importance of completing FAFSA and have generally done so. Unfortunately, much of their financial aid knowledge ends there – they are often unaware of the steps between the “Submit” button and actually receiving financial aid. There’s more we can do to prepare students for the verification process, reducing the surprise and stress involved and equipping them with needed tools and resources.

5. Use technology to expand your capacity.

The verification process adds a lot to your To Do list – we’ve been there.

At Dell Scholars, we refer to our admin tool (adapted for other practitioners as GradSnapp) as our “secret sauce.” That’s true year-round, but the verification process is a great example of where this technology expands the team’s capacity and helps us to work more effectively – from our built-in texting feature, where we can bulk-text a new class to jump-start the verification process, to our onboarding survey, which populates dashboards with an easy snapshot of financial aid status to guide our intervention strategy.

Verification can be a daunting process, and there’s nothing more heartbreaking than seeing a student change their plans at this stage in the game. The more we can do to improve the experience, the better. On the path to college graduation, we have the opportunity to ensure that this is just one step along their journey – and not the last.

We would love to hear from our colleagues working in college completion: what have you learned supporting students through the verification process? Let us know by tagging us on Twitter at @DellScholars, and by using the hashtag #verificationtips.