By Molly Minta
The onerous application working-class students in Mississippi must complete to receive college loans and grants could require an extra step under a new rule proposed by the state office that oversees financial aid.
Starting Oct. 1, the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid may ask students applying for the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students grant to provide additional documents if their state and federal financial aid applications describe a different household size and parental marital status. Those documents could be a rental agreement, a marriage license, a divorce decree or a death certificate.
The HELP grant is intended for students from working-class families — those that make $39,500 or less. To qualify, students have to fill out the Mississippi Aid Application. But before they can do that, students must first complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and be found eligible for a full or partial Pell grant.
Both applications ask students to describe their household size.
In the event a student submits conflicting information, OSFA will need to verify which description is right, said Jennifer Rogers, OSFA’s director, because her office uses household size to determine family income.
“A full-tuition grant is extremely generous, and it should go to the students who meet all of the eligibility criteria,” Rogers said. “To be good stewards of the state’s resources, we have an obligation to ensure that the students are being completely truthful in their application regarding 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 Post-Secondary Board at its mid-April meeting and is currently going through the administrative review process. Her office hasn’t pulled exact numbers, but it estimates about 3 percent of HELP applicants — between 100 and 150 students — listed a different household size from what they put on the FAFSA.
Still, advocates for college access say the policy could put up another barrier for working-class students seeking financial aid. While they acknowledge the importance of weeding out fraud, advocates question if the benefit of stopping some students who don’t need aid from receiving it outweighs the potential cost: Preventing working-class students from getting the help they need to go to college.
“Could there be families out there completing the forms with different information on purpose? Perhaps there are,” said MorraLee Keller, the director of technical assistance at the National College Attainment Network (NCAN). “It’s a good thing (OSFA will) verify it.”
At the same time, Keller said, “anytime you put an extra step in the process, it creates a hurdle.”
Working-class students seeking help affording college already face a number of hurdles their wealthier peers do not. Notably, they are already more likely to have their financial aid applications audited by the federal government in a process it calls “verification.”
Each year, millions of students across the country are asked to hand over additional documents so the U.S. Department of Education can verify their FAFSA application is truthful — from forms detailing what their family spends on rent, food, and utilities in a month to a letter from a doctor confirming a disability.
Financial aid officers and college access advocates had long suspected that working-class students are selected for verification at disproportionately high rates. In February, the Washington Post obtained data that confirmed their hunch: The paper reported the federal government verifies financial aid applications from “students whose household income is low enough to qualify for Pell grants … at six times the rate of those who are ineligible.”
The Post also found that Black and Latino students are audited at disproportionately higher rates than white students.
And yet, research suggests the federal government might have an easier time rooting out fraud if it scrutinized wealthier students as closely as it does working-class ones.
A recent study by NCAN found that it is actually wealthier students who are more likely to receive an improper 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 have their financial award change after verification.
“By comparison,” the report reads, “FAFSA filers who did not receive an auto-zero EFC more frequently have a change to their award after verification,” at a rate of about 65 percent.
OSFA’s new rule, while it sounds similar to verification, is a bit different. OSFA’s policy is triggered by conflicting information on the HELP application and the FAFSA, while the federal government won’t share the methodology behind why some applications are verified and not others.
Nonetheless, advocates say the principle undergirding both processes is the same.
“Those getting the dollars are always going to be the ones with the most scrutiny,” Keller said. “We ask poor people to prove over and over again that they’re poor, and it’s just not fair.”
As a result, tens of thousands of students across the country do not receive the financial aid they likely qualified for, in some cases leading them to drop out of college or never attend.
That’s what Lakisha, a single mother in Jackson County, worried would happen to her twins who are seniors in high school when she learned their financial aid applications were selected for verification. She waited over two weeks for one community college financial aid office to send her the forms it needed. When they finally arrived, Lakisha said the questions seemed like a waste of time.
“It was the exact same stuff I turned in in the first place,” she said. “Why does it need the same questions? They should’ve had that stuff in the first place. Why did they ask me the same stuff over and over?”
While OSFA’s new policy may be well-intentioned, Lakisha said the idea of possibly being asked for additional documents, especially those pertaining to marital status, “feels like a punishment.”
“I don’t think they should judge you on your mishaps,” she said. “People’s circumstances change all of the time — all of the time. You never know when it’s gonna change. You do not know.”
Before OSFA starts auditing HELP applications, Ann Hendrick, the director of Get2College, said she would encourage the office to “understand the counseling aspect and the trauma that” questions can bring. Hendrick pointed out that the innocuous nature of 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 has heard stories of brusque financial aid officers asking students selected for verification painful questions like, “why did your mother leave your stepfather, and can you get a police report on that?”
Ideally, rather than audit any application, Hendrick said she’d like to see OSFA bring its application in line with the FAFSA, which is being simplified for the 2023-2024 school year. She said that would reduce the burden on working-class families, as well as the amount of time OSFA will spend making sure those documents are truthful.
“In one year all the rules are getting ready to change for the FAFSA,” Hendrick said. “It would be wise for the state financial aid office to align their processes with the FAFSA, because verification takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of counseling.”
Editor’s note: Get2College is a program of the Woodward Hines Education Foundation, a Mississippi Today donor.