A Fumble on a Key Fafsa Tool, and a Failure to Communicate

0
108
Want create site? Find Free WordPress Themes and plugins.

Applying for financial aid for college got a lot harder this month, in the thick of application season, but it took federal agencies nearly a week to explain what was happening.

To get aid for college from federal or state governments, as well as from colleges, students and their parents must fill out the Fafsa (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The notoriously complicated form, which is longer than the typical 1040 tax form, collects detailed information from students and families about income, expenses and taxes. On March 3, families logging onto the website for federal aid found that a key component of the online application had stopped functioning.

The component, known as the Data Retrieval Tool, automatically fills in a Fafsa application with information from an applicant’s tax return, via a data connection with the Internal Revenue Service. Without the tool, applicants have to transcribe tax information from their old returns or order tax transcripts from the I.R.S. (which can take several weeks).

Twitter started to fill with frustrated messages from applicants wondering when the tool would be back up. Student advocacy organizations, such as the National College Access Network (N.C.A.N.), pleaded with the Department of Education and the I.R.S. to explain the situation and resolve it as quickly as possible, but received no response. N.C.A.N. and others began urging families to contact their elected representatives.

Six days later, on Thursday morning, the Department of Education and the I.R.S. jointly released a statement saying that the I.R.S. had decided to temporarily suspend the Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) as a precautionary step following concerns that information from the tool could potentially be misused by identity thieves.

The agencies declined to elaborate, and it was unclear whether a breach had occurred or had only been feared. The tool has been in use for five years, with no reports of identity theft stemming from its use. If the move was, as the statement said, a precautionary step, waiting to repair it until after the peak of the aid application season would have been far less disruptive.

Students can still apply for student aid, and it seems they should not postpone their application in hopes that the data tool will return anytime soon. While the agencies have provided no specific date, they have indicated it will be down at least several weeks.

Completing the Fafsa is now going to require more legwork, more paperwork and more time, and applicants will be putting themselves in a difficult position if they wait until the last minute to apply.

Fafsas completed without using the data tool are more likely to be chosen for verification, an audit that requires applicants to submit additional paperwork to prove that their tax information is accurate. This further slows the process. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has asked the Department of Education to scale back verification requirements given the data tool outage.

Federal aid such as Pell grants and Stafford loans have no firm deadline; students can apply all year. But many states have limited aid budgets that are rationed on a first-come-first-served basis. And colleges have deadlines for their own aid, which is drawn from endowments and tuition revenue and which is limited at most schools. Delayed applications may mean, for many students, no aid from states or school.

The unannounced suspension of the data tool comes at a critical moment in the aid cycle. March is a peak time for aid applications, second only to February in the volume of Fafsa submissions. The deadlines for 19 state aid programs are approaching, according to Sarah Pingel of the Education Commission of the States.

The I.R.S. suspended the data tool just as it was benefiting more applicants than ever before. In past years, the Fafsa application called for tax data from the previous year, even though most filers wouldn’t have had returns processed by this point. But now those applying for aid for the 2017-18 academic year are allowed to submit information from their 2015 tax return (in fact, it’s a requirement to use 2015 and not 2016 returns) a change made in part to allow many more people to use the data tool.

It is not just current students who are affected by the shutdown. Borrowers applying for or renewing their eligibility for income-based repayment plans such as Pay as You Earn use the data tool to verify their income information, which is used to calculate payments.

The Trump administration has tightened social media and other communications from agencies. Coordinating communication across multiple agencies may be particularly challenging, as the administration may require approvals from political appointees who are not yet fully in place.

This may explain the silence from the education department while the tool was disabled for a week. The problem with this approach is that it takes a broad network of financial aid offices, aid professionals and advocacy groups to keep the aid system functioning. College offices put together aid packages and communicate with students, for example. If this intricate infrastructure is not kept informed about changes, the aid system will grind to a halt.

Did you find apk for android? You can find new Free Android Games and apps.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here