Article 5 min

Student identity verification for online education

Student identity verification

September 8, 2021   |   Author: Jo Steel

The global pandemic prompted an unprecedented surge in online life. From shopping for groceries to job interviews and more, many of our daily activities moved from being predominantly in-person to predominantly online — and that included education.

With millions of students worldwide abruptly attending classes remotely, it begged the question: without the traditional in-person interaction, how could higher education institutions ensure that the correct people were being taught and that the correct people were being given the academic credits?

The requirement for student identity to be verified prior to awarding academic credentials isn’t new: The United States Higher Education Opportunity Act, for example, has been in effect since 2008. Luckily, there are far more options for online identity verification available today than ever before.

Gaming the higher education system

While it’s not possible to simply walk into a university and walk out with a handful of degrees, the incentive for fraud exists. In much of the world, obtaining a university degree or an equivalent technical certification is a significant advantage in earning a living.

In many areas of the world, higher education or professional apprenticeships aren’t cheap. For example, if Cameron can spend $50,000 plus living expenses for three years and come out with a degree, but Robin can hack into the system and appear to have obtained the same degree, that’s significant motivation to game the system.

However, the security that most educational institutions can bring to bear on the problem falls far short of that which banks can call on. After all, when your business has spent centuries depending on staff seeing students weekly, the opportunity for individuals to end up credited from the achievements of others is less obvious.

The challenges of being young and mobile

However, there are some unique challenges to remotely verifying the identities of the typical higher education-aged student body.

Many postsecondary students have only just begun to accumulate the kind of online footprint that so many methods rely on, such as a credit file. In the 18 to 24 years-of-age bracket, a full three years or more of credit history isn’t a given. Likewise, mailing address: Many students, especially in the remote paradigm, may still live with family, in shared housing or move frequently. They’re unlikely to be property owners. Some may not have obtained a driver’s license, or may use a mobile prepaid payment solution rather than a traditional credit card.

All of this makes the identification of this demographic more difficult when the traditional option of walking into an office with two pieces of government-issued ID and a recent electricity bill isn’t available.

Verification methods for educational institutions

Depending on the required level of confidence in the verification, there are a variety of methods available to verify an identity. This can range from sending credentials in the mail or verifying your email to other channels offering high levels of confidence, such as those used by financial applications.

The most direct method is relying on database checks through electronic identity verification. This method analyzes proven records such as name, date of birth and an identification number, such as driver’s license number or national ID number, to see if they match what the student submits in an online form. Additional data such as address, phone number and email address can also assist the verification process.

In situations where increased assurance is needed, there are authentication methods that can be used. For example, if a student loses their login information and requires a reset, providing that information without additional confirmation can result in a breached account. At that point, an ID document verification might be necessary where educational institutions have students provide many of the same documents for verification as if they were able to walk into a registrar’s office.

The student can take a selfie and a photograph of an ID document from their mobile phone, submit both through the service the institution has chosen, and have a result within a few seconds.

In the back-end, an app can:

  • Read the information from the document
  • Compare the information against databases
  • Match the selfie against the image in the photographed document
  • Match the features of the document against standard templates to provide a high-confidence result on whether or not the document is genuine

The advantage to this system is that the institution can obtain permission to store the document images and confirmation results for their records for an auditable trail. The verification remains available for consultation. 

In a perfect world, the aim is to balance the need to have the maximum number of students following the frictionless path with a successful online verification with the need to have that verification be accurate.


Making the change to supporting online identity verification will represent a big change for some institutions. With the growing number of students studying remotely, and the growing number of options available for remote identity verification, it may be a major change whose time has come.

Developing the ability to reliably verify the identity of the typical student-age individual will only become more key as society increasingly pivots to a more online existence; initially for educational and certification bodies, but also for all organizations that want to build their ability to do business online with this age bracket.