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How to Help Your Students Through the FAFSA Verification Process

The FAFSA process can be overwhelming and daunting to FLI (first generation and/or low income) students – especially because their ability to attend college is heavily dependent on cost. 

Because of the significance of this process, and the many questions that come up along the way, it’s critical that counselors provide an extra level of support to their students to help them fill out the forms correctly. And just when some students think they're done, they might be selected for verification by the government.  

In an effort to help, I’ve outlined the most common questions that come up through the verification process for those of you who are navigating this process with students at your school.


What does "chosen for verification" mean in the financial aid process? 


Students fill out the FAFSA form each year at www.fafsa.ed.gov in order to receive financial aid for college. The federal government cannot audit every family to make sure the information is correct, so they ‘randomly’ verify one in three FAFSA forms for accuracy. Colleges and universities may also opt to randomly ‘verify’ FAFSA information. Some small colleges ‘verify’ every family. 


How does a student know if they've been chosen for verification?


After a student completes the FAFSA form online, the student should open their FAFSA account to their homepage. A few lines down it will say ‘Student Aid Report’ or SAR,  click on the link. Find your ‘Estimated Family Contribution’ or EFC. If you see an asterik (*) next to the EFC number, the federal government has chosen you for verification. You did not do anything wrong!


Who will NOT be chosen for verification? 


The family that uses the ‘IRS Data Retrieval Tool’ while filling out the FAFSA will NOT be chosen for verification because it automatically linked your tax returns to your FAFSA.  EVERYTHING you put in must be EXACTLY the same as your parents tax return in order for the retrieval tool to match up and automatically put in your tax information. The parent name must be exactly like it was on the tax returns.  The address must also be exact as the year you filed your taxes. For instance, if you put AVE for your address on the return but write Avenue on the FAFSA, it will not link up. If you leave out a middle initial, it will not link up. If you type in your mother on the FAFSA but your father was listed first on the tax return…. well you know by now it will not automatically link your tax results.


What do I do if I can't link to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool on my FAFSA? 


The student and parent must fill out a form called the 4506T from the IRS to retrieve their tax information by mail. If a student DID NOT work in the tax year requirement of the FAFSA form, they need proof that they did not file taxes.  They will fill out the form so they can prove this to their colleges. If a student worked, but did not make enough to file, they still need to fill out the form. In this case, the student would fill out the FAFSA and state ‘will not file’ and use their W2’s from the company they worked for that tax year. If they did not keep their W2, they must contact the company and retrieve the W2 from them. Their social security number will state they made money.

If the parent did not work in that tax year, they fill out the 4506 T form and state the same information. If the parent DID WORK, it will have a space to check mark stating the tax form they used in that tax year.  Then they check mark the box that states they request a tax transcript.

For verification purposes, BOTH the student and parent need a tax transcript (if they live in the same household).  ALL INFORMATION must be filled out correctly on this form. If you miss a checkmark of fill in the year wrong, the federal government will not process the request.  Double check to make sure everything is filled out completely and correctly before sending it to the correct address on page 2 of the form.


How can high school counselors assist students who are chosen for verification? 


The majority of my students are FLI students, so I try to simplify this confusing process for families.  I personally download copies of the 4506 T form online and fill them out as much as possible (correct dates, check marks) for both non filers and also for those requesting tax transcripts. I keep these in my office ready to give to the student. 

I explain that EVERYTHING must match up (address changes from the tax year can trip up families who move often or are in ‘transition/homeless’). They must also have their social security number correct.

Next I have the main office print up correct address labels to send completed 4506 T form requests. The correct address for your state is on the second page. It changes by state. I place these on envelopes and give these to the students along with the 4506T form.  

I also have stamps for students to purchase (our district cannot afford to give them out for free) in my office.  Students rarely send mail via the post office and they have no idea where to purchase stamps. They also rarely have cash but they will find the money in order to have their financial aid information processed. I personally believe anything and everything I can do to break down the barriers for my students to get to college is part of my job. These little steps have assisted my students to have a higher completion rate for verification. To me, it is worth the little extra effort.


Should ALL students who have a zero EFC fill out a 4506 T even if they don't have an * on their FAFSA form?


A very wise non profit friend of mine suggests YES. She has noticed over the years that high numbers of students with a zero EFC are either chosen by the federal government or the college. This process takes time to complete, so working ahead is a good idea. A FLI student who ignores the request and has to complete the process alone during the summer with NO assistance is likely to be a victim of ‘summer melt’ (an article for a future date).