Brenda was one of six Florida college students who participated in a panel called “Money Talks: A Candid Conversation with Florida Students” at the 2018 Florida College Access Network Summit. (The deadline to submit a presentation proposal for the 2019 FCAN Summit is October 15.) The panelists discussed their experiences applying for college, managing their work-study balance, and much more. This story is a follow-up to Brenda’s experiences navigating the financial aid process.
As part of her work-study position in Valencia College’s financial aid office, Brenda Ilojiole assisted students as they attempted to navigate the often daunting prospect of paying for college.
But even Brenda’s professional experience couldn’t prevent her from getting tangled in the process herself as she prepared to transfer to the University of Central Florida to study psychology. As a DirectConnect to UCF student, Brenda was guaranteed admission to UCF upon completing her associate’s degree at Valencia this past spring.
“When I was filling out my FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application, I had almost 50 documents returned back to me,” said Brenda, who currently works as an enrollment services advisor at Valencia. “It’s not because I don’t know how to fill it out, but there’s something I’m doing wrong and there’s somebody not communicating with me.”
Brenda, 22, was selected for verification, a process required by the federal government to ensure information submitted on the FAFSA is accurate. About one-third of FAFSA filers are selected for verification each year. Starting with the 2012-13 school year, the U.S. Department of Education implemented a verification system to select applications based on a set of federally-identified factors.
A National College Access Network (NCAN) analysis of federal data shows students are much more likely to get flagged if they are eligible for need-based aid. NCAN’s analysis further shows that low-income students selected for verification are about 22 percentage points less likely to receive a Pell Grant than those who don’t.
Before being selected for verification, Brenda had planned to enroll at UCF for the 12-week Summer C session. Instead, she had to delay the start of her studies by more than a month as she attempted to satisfy her verification requirements. By the time the process was complete, she was limited to enrolling in the more intensive, six-week Summer B session.
“Every time I turned something in, another requirement popped up,” Brenda said. For instance, she was asked to submit a signed copy of her 1040 federal tax return form. “I submitted a signed copy of my 1040, but it wasn’t scanned in the correct place: it was supposed to be for financial aid, but it was scanned for Florida residency. I submitted it a second time, and it was scanned incorrectly again.”
Brenda said she mostly became frustrated at the lack of clarity and communication throughout the process.
“It could’ve been scanned in correctly if everyone had the right communication,” she said. “If you’re not explaining to me why it’s taking 10-15 business days for me to get a verification, I’m going to be frustrated. And I’m not frustrated that it’s taking 10-15 business days, I’m frustrated because I don’t know why.”
Brenda said she was relatively well-versed in the financial aid process prior to her work-study assignment at Valencia.
“For me, it was not an option for my parents to pay for college and they did not want me to take on loans or have the pressure of working and not focus on school,” said Brenda, who is currently living at home with her family. “So with me and college and financial aid, I did all the research myself.”
In addition to her Pell Grant, Brenda has taken out student loans totaling approximately $5,400 to help her pay and manage her studies.
But it was her recent experience with verification that has made her reevaluate the way information is delivered to students.
“Working in financial aid, we talk a lot about communication but we don’t really emphasize explanation,” Brenda said. “It’s not enough for me to tell a student, ‘Did you file your taxes? Ok go fill out this form from the IRS.’ They need to know why they’re filling out that paper.”