If you are a college student or still paying off those student loans, the IRS just made it harder for you to fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.
Without warning, the IRS took down its online Data Retrieval Tool. This means students cannot automatically populate their FAFSA using past data. If this sounds like a minor inconvenience of filling out a few boxes, it’s not. Finding all the paperwork to fill out FAFSA can be time consuming.
According to Buzzfeed News, “The tool allowed students to import tax information directly into the FAFSA and government loan repayment forms, error-free, rather than having to scrounge up old tax documents and manually enter the information. Now, an application process that took less than a half hour could stretch over days or weeks.”
David Sheridan, a financial aid official at Columbia University, said “only about a quarter of FAFSA filers are asked to verify their information. …Those who don’t use [the Data Retrieval Tool] may have a greater chance of being selected for verification.” Those students may need to provide proof of their parents’ income and proof that their sibling(s) is also enrolled in college – not to mention past tax information, which not everyone saves.
Low-income students suffer most from the Data Retrieval Tool outage, because it can be all but impossible for them to get the necessary documentation to fill out FAFSA manually. If a student or recent grad can’t get the documentation together in time, the consequences are very expensive. Anyone who doesn’t fill out FAFSA can expect to see their student loan payments spike.
Why would the IRS silently remove something that people depend on to afford a college education? The department has defended the move as a kind of “preemptive strike” against the threat of hackers. While no known hack has taken place, the IRS says that the Data Retrieval Tool made financial information vulnerable to hackers – and that some attempted to access private data.
“Protecting taxpayer data has to be the highest priority,” stated IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
According to a press release from the Department of Education, “students and families should plan for the tool to be offline until the start of the next FAFSA season.” But that’s just not good enough. President Trump is fighting an uphill battle to restore efficiency and trust to the government. The FAFSA flap doesn’t help matters.
If Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wants to win over young adults (and their parents!) she ought to make fixing the FAFSA process a priority.