Applying For College Aid Just Got Harder

Mar 15, 2017
Originally published on March 15, 2017 6:30 pm

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool is down.

If those words don't send a shiver up your spine, it means you're not a high school senior or college student rushing to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

The FAFSA is the form — famously complicated and difficult to finish — that stands between many low-income students and the federal, state and institutional aid they need to pay for college.

In the past, many students weren't finishing the FAFSA because it required them to manually enter their parents' tax data from the previous year. That was a big hurdle, but there were also clear fixes, including making the FAFSA available earlier and requiring parents' "prior-prior" year tax data instead. The latter allowed more students to utilize the IRS tool, which can automatically answer most of the FAFSA's tough tax questions.

In 2015, the Obama administration agreed to these fixes, and so far this year, FAFSA completion rates are soaring.

"Particularly for high school seniors, filing rates are up 74 percent through the middle of February," says Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy with the National College Access Network.

But that progress may be on hold. Students who recently tried to use the IRS tool were told: "This service will be unavailable due to system maintenance. We apologize for any inconvenience."

"System maintenance," it turns out, wasn't the full story, either. According to a joint statement released Thursday by the IRS and the Department of Education:

"As part of a wider, ongoing effort at the IRS to protect the security of data, the IRS 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."

At first, Warick says, many students and school counselors assumed it was a temporary glitch and simply waited a day or two to try again. That's a problem.

"They can't just wait for it to work," Warick says, because according to the statement, "the online data tool will be unavailable for several weeks."

To make matters worse, now is prime time for FAFSA filers, with many states' "priority" financial-aid deadlines approaching. Students who apply in time are most likely to get the aid they qualify for before the money runs out.

In Texas, where Sarah Jensen works, that deadline is technically today. Jensen is the director of college access and success for the Commit Partnership in Dallas. She says students can still enter their parents' 2015 tax data by hand, assuming they can get it.

"Imagine what it would feel like if, on April First, two weeks before the tax deadline, TurboTax and all your online filing sites went down with no notice," Jensen says.

And answering those tough tax questions will be especially hard for at-risk students who may be low-income, transient or not live with the parent whose tax information they're required to provide.

"If you don't come from the stable background with two parents who are living at home and have both gone to college, trying to find those answers can be a large impediment for those students," says Warick.

In short: Students are in for "a rude awakening," says the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, or NASFAA.

Until the problem is resolved, NASFAA's president and CEO, Justin Draeger, called on the Education Department "to take immediate steps to ease application and verification burdens that will fall squarely on students, potentially delaying or complicating their application process, not to mention increasing work on college campuses that could lead to delays and backlogs."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Warning - the IRS Data Retrieval Tool is down. If those words don't plunge you into a cold sweat, then you might not be a high school senior or college student racing to apply for financial aid. We'll let Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team explain.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: For those of you who aren't sweating, here's a little background. Students who need help paying for college fill out something called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It's always been hard, with dozens and dozens of questions, especially detailed questions about parents' income and taxes.

CARRIE WARICK: If you don't come from the stable background with two parents who are living at home and have both gone to college, trying to find those answers can be a large impediment for our students.

TURNER: Carrie Warick is director of policy and advocacy with the National College Access Network. She says last year the government made a few big changes to make the FAFSA easier. They gave students more time, and they also - and this is key - made it so that more students can use this thing from the IRS called the Data Retrieval Tool. I saw it work firsthand last fall visiting a high school in Alexandria, Va.

Student Devin Butler was filling out his FAFSA with help from college adviser Margaret Feldman. He made it to the tax section, and then he held his breath as the Data Retrieval Tool answered all those detailed questions automatically.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DEVIN BUTLER: All right.

MARGARET FELDMAN: OK. There we go.

BUTLER: There we go.

FELDMAN: All the numbers we need, so go ahead and hit - check this box, and hit transfer now.

TURNER: Butler finished his FAFSA just a few minutes later, and he's not alone, says Warick.

WARICK: Particularly for high school seniors, filing rates are up 74 percent through the middle of February.

TURNER: Which brings us to this month when that magical data retrieval tool stopped working. At first, students and school counselors thought it's a glitch, so they waited a day or two. But, says Warick...

WARICK: They can't just wait for it to work.

TURNER: That's because late last week, the IRS said the tool won't be back for several weeks. Why - out of concerns, quote, "that information from the tool could potentially be misused by identity thieves." Sarah Jensen is director of college access and success for the Commit! Partnership in Dallas, and she says students can still input their parents' 2015 tax data by hand assuming they can get it. But...

SARAH JENSEN: Imagine what it would feel like if on April 1, two weeks before the tax deadline, TurboTax and all your online filing sites went down with no notice.

TURNER: In Texas where Jensen works, that deadline is technically today. It's known as a priority deadline. Most states have them. Students who apply in time are most likely to get the state and institutional aid they qualify for before the money runs out. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.