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Applying For College Aid Just Got Harder

Maria Fabrizio for NPR

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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
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