Taxes are frustrating. Look into any household during the months of March and April and you may see distressed individuals attempting to navigate the perilous tax terrain. However, a closer look may reveal a few of these younger individuals are stressing over a different type of government obstacle.

For college students, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the metaphorical cherry on top of the very weary tax season. However, when all is said and done, most college students submit the FAFSA and don’t worry about further documentation. Yet, for 20-30% of college students, there is a secondary painful process: FAFSA verification.

During the FAFSA verification process, colleges and universities have to show proof of a legitimate FAFSA claim for their audited students. Verification documents include tax documents, such as the W2, and family data worksheets. Some students must disclose physical copies of tax returns. If digging through records didn’t already cause a headache, printing and submitting physical documents will. But why should a process, that started as automated, have to end with submitting a myriad of hard copies?

“The Department of Education relies entirely on paperless methods; they don’t even print hard copies of the FAFSA anymore.”

— Gayla Roberts, Director of Student Financial Services, Anderson University

As a college student, I find it important that my alma mater keeps my information private and secure from data breaches. So, I was confused to find that the FAFSA verification process was handled using a combination of paper and electronic means, instead of using a purely automated system.

After meeting with Director of Information Technology Services and Director of Student Financial Services at Anderson University, I now understand the methods universities employ to keep student data safe. Furthermore, I understand how universities can and should streamline their FAFSA verification process. University staff and students, to reduce your FAFSA verification headache, read on!

Is Student Information Really Secure?

In February 2016, I received a suspicious email in my Anderson University inbox asking me to verify my IRS information for Student Financial Services. I was annoyed at first, thinking there was an error in my FAFSA. As the day progressed, I grew suspicious. My suspicion was confirmed when the email account for our campus business club received the same IRS notification. A campus organization would not need to verify student tax information. The problem became clear: Anderson University was under a phishing attack.

“The attack was frustrating. There is a high cost in time for IT. We spend the better part of a week shutting down compromised email accounts. It takes time away from our other tasks,” said ITS Director, Michael Tucker. The phishing attack furthers the question, is student information secure?

“There has been a lot of attention recently on security breaches at large corporations, but higher education institutions are targets as well. Prospective students, current students, and employees place trust in IT to keep their data safe, so we need to ensure we have best processes in place to keep that data secure.”

— Michael Tucker, Director of Information Technology Service, Anderson University

So, how does Anderson strive to keep student information safe, especially during the FAFSA verification process?

The Verification Headache

When students submit their FAFSAs, the Department of Education completely controls the information behind their security and firewall. The necessary information is then funneled to the appropriate personnel at the university. Institutions, such as Anderson University (AU), then maintain this information in a centralized, robust database system. AU’s database is secured with strict user permissions and a secure on-premises room. So far, so good.

However, Gayla Roberts reported that an average of 20-30% of AU’s student population was then selected for some form of FAFSA verification. For these students, the Department of Education requests a plethora of tax returns (typically for both the student and parent), as well as various other worksheets. At Anderson, students turn in these documents directly to the Financial Aid office — in hard copies.

As a college student, taking time out of a rigorous class schedule to turn in hard copies, which were probably printed on my roommate’s low-ink printer, or on my paid library account, is not ideal. After the office receives all the necessary paperwork, personnel then have to manually enter the information on a student checklist. The verifications are submitted individually, not in a mass file upload.

What happens to the hard copies? They are stored in a secure safe until the student graduates or the paperwork is deemed outdated. Then the copies are destroyed in accordance with data security compliance.

The systems works. But the process is a hassle for everyone involved. Students should be able to submit the verification documents electronically as well, but also shouldn’t have to do it through email — which is often unencrypted.

Since email isn’t encrypted, or very secure, I am glad I don’t have to send my personal information to my school via email. It is a privacy risk, but it is convenient. Luckily, there is a way to streamline the process.

Combining the convenience of email, but the security of traditional, physical safes and encryption, is the answer. Using a secure file management platform, built specifically for enterprises, universities can reduce the FAFSA headache.

How Do I Reduce the FAFSA Verification Headache with File Management?

First, universities should decide which hosting method best suits their needs. On-premises may be a preference for IT departments that traditionally keep all hard copies in safes and servers on their campus. Or staff may prefer to use a cloud-based system. Regardless of the system type, the main goal of the management system is to ensure high levels of security, due to the sensitivity of FAFSA verification information. For this reason, universities tend to use file management systems that provide encryption, user permissions and password-protected sharing.

Once your university adopts a solution, they can use electronic uploading for students to submit their verification documents. In SmartFile, a user can create an upload link so students can submit materials, without seeing the other files submitted. With direct uploading, staff can bypass cumbersome data entry or uploading.

By creating an upload link, students have avoided a trip to the Financial Aid office, and staff has avoided the risk of losing hard copies. And now the university doesn’t have to worry about burning or shredding the paperwork of students who have graduated. The file management system creates an easy interface to manage all records.

Universities, it’s time to automate your FAFSA verification process. Ease the headache of your student population and staff. Choose SmartFile.

All-in-One File Management Platform

Ready to streamline your management of FAFSA documents and files? Make it easier on the administration and students by trying out a free trial of SmartFile today!

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About Victoria Shaw

I'm the Marketing Intern at SmartFile, and a Junior Marketing major at Anderson University. I enjoy crafting content while listening to musical theatre soundtracks and eating sushi (or chocolate). Thank you for reading my post! P.S. I graduate in just over a year, so if you need a high quality marketing team member, I'm your gal;)

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