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Indecision Day

It’s been over a week since May 1, the date widely celebrated in higher education as National College Signing (or Decision) Day. It’s the deadline by which many incoming students commit to their institutions and send in their deposits to secure their spots in the fall class. Celebrations roll in all across social media and it’s a fun day to be in higher education, to see so many hopeful beginnings of college careers.

Even though there wasn’t as much hype around the date when I was making my own college choice in high school, in the days and weeks leading up to May 1, it was all my classmates and I could talk about—did you decide what you’re doing next year?

It was an even bigger deal when I was a college counselor and cause for a major celebration. We had a wall of stars with the kids’ names on them and all the college counselors would cheer when they proudly slapped their stars up on the wall near their college choice.

But, there were always students who were not celebrating, students who hadn’t made their higher ed decisions by May 1. This Inside Higher Ed article caught my eye this year, as it brought attention to those students, college counselors, and admissions staff who are still working after the National College Signing Day. There are plenty of students who haven’t made their decisions yet, and their commitment to higher education is no less exciting than those who sent in deposits last week.

Even less discussed is “verification melt,” one of the things I fought hardest against with my students. These students apply to college and for financial aid but are then selected to provide additional documents to support their financial aid application and often leave the application incomplete (therefore not getting financial aid).

I worked primarily with low-income students, and we routinely told them that they would be more than likely to be selected for verification for financial aid. As this Money article points out, more than 90 percent of financial aid application audits affect low-income students, a disproportional (and disappointing) stat considering only about a third of applicants overall are selected for verification.

Delays caused by verification (which sometimes required tracking down different IRS documents that took weeks to obtain) often had the unfortunate side effect of delaying a fully complete financial aid application for students, who, as low-income applicants, had the greatest financial need—college would not truly be possible for them without financial aid.

May 1 is a big deal in higher ed, and it should be for all involved—the next class of students and their families, high schools and college counselors, and the institutions themselves. But it’s hard for me not to also think about those students who so desperately wanted to make a decision and got held up by verification and those who fell off the map entirely. While I continue to love National College Signing Day, I do think we can do better to ensure that more students can partake in the celebration.