Updated June 17, 2019
Students who would like to be considered for federal, state, or college need-based financial aid are almost always required to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The FAFSA application opens on October 1 for the following academic year, but that is not the deadline for submission. There are definitely things you can and should do, before you file, to get the most aid possible, (See “Don’t File the FAFSA Until You Read This.”), but cheating is not one of them. You must be fully honest and accurate with your information. Intentionally providing false or misleading information on your FAFSA is considered fraud and carries penalties of fines up to $20,000, repaying all financial aid received by the student, and up to five years in jail.
However, even if you have done nothing wrong, you can still be selected for a financial aid practice called FAFSA Verification.
What is FAFSA Verification?
The US Department of Education requires a selected group of students to give their college’s financial aid office supporting documentation for some or all of the financial or other information reported on the FAFSA. FAFSA Verification prevents ineligible students from receiving aid and ensures eligible students receive all the aid they qualify for.
Who Gets Selected for Verification?
The methods used by the Department of Education to determine who and what data points are selected for verification are not made public. But we do know that about one-third of all applications are selected each year and the main reasons include:
- You were chosen randomly
- Your FAFSA was incomplete
- Your FAFSA contains estimated information
- Your information is inconsistent
Colleges have the authority to select additional FAFSAs for verification and to verify additional data elements. Some colleges, typically small ones that award a large amount of their own money, verify 100 percent of financial aid applicants.
What Gets Verified?
Information that might require verification includes:
Adjusted Gross Income (AGI)
U.S. Income Tax Paid
Untaxed Portions of IRA Distributions
Untaxed Portions of Pensions
IRA Deductions and Payments
Tax Exempt Interest Income
Education Tax Credits
Income Earned from Work
The number in College Students in the Household
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps
Child Support Paid
High School Completion Status
Applicant Identity and Statement of Education Purpose
Information that was imported into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool will not be selected for verification unless you have modified it.
How Do You Know if You are Selected?
If you are selected for verification, an asterisk will appear next to your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) on your SAR (Student Aid Report), which is a summary of your FAFSA submission. You may also be notified by the school you plan to attend, either through your online account, university email, personal email, or letter. Students should check their communications regularly after filing the FAFSA. Missing the notice that your FAFSA was selected for verification isn’t a valid excuse.
What Happens if You are Selected?
College financial aid administrators have the legal authority to request additional information and supporting documentation such as tax return transcripts, siblings’ college registration forms, and proof of income. They can also ask you to complete one or more verification forms. Double check each form to ensure it is complete and accurate. It’s important to take the verification process seriously. If you don’t comply or meet the deadline, the college is prohibited from disbursing federal student aid funds to you.
What if You Made a Mistake on Your FAFSA?
Sometimes people make innocent mistakes when filing the FAFSA. If you discover an error after filing your FAFSA, you should correct it as quickly as possible. However, if you discover a mistake during the verification process, speak with the college’s financial aid office so they can advise you on the best way to correct it.
How Do You Correct Your FAFSA?
The quickest and easiest way to correct your FAFSA is to log in to your online account and select “Make FAFSA Corrections.” Tax return information you transferred via the IRS DRT (IRS Data Retrieval Tool) cannot be changed on your online FAFSA form. If you amended your tax return and need to update your FAFSA contact your schools’ financial aid office.
If you did not file online, write the corrections on your paper SAR, sign it, and mail it to the address provided on the SAR. Alternatively, it is also possible that the college’s financial aid office can make the changes for you electronically.
Most of the financial information that was accurate as of the day you originally signed your FAFSA may not be changed. For example, if you spent your savings after filing your FAFSA you cannot change the amount you reported. This is why it’s important to do everything you can before you file, to reduce your EFC. However, if there is a significant change in your or your parents’ financial situation (such as a loss of income or significant medical bills) that occurred since you filed, contact the financial aid office.
What if Your Financial Aid Award Changes?
Going through the verification process doesn’t usually affect how much aid you receive. However, it might, and you could end up with less aid than you were originally awarded. If this happens, contact the college’s financial aid office to see what options you have.
Can You Avoid FAFSA Verification?
Many FAFSAs are selected for verification randomly so there is no sure way to avoid it. But you can reduce your chances of being chosen if you follow these guidelines:
- Be honest (People who try to game the system usually get caught.)
- Be accurate
- Use the IRS Data Retrieval tool to download income tax data into your FAFSA
- Correct errors on your FAFSA as soon as you find them
If you’ve reported your information honestly and accurately, a verification notice should be nothing to worry about. It’s just another hoop you need to jump through in the financial aid process.