Filling out FAFSA Gets More Difficult After IRS Move
Posted By Marisa Sanfilippo on March 17, 2017 at 9:10 pm
High school seniors and college students have been rushing to fill out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid to meet state deadlines. The process had been going well for the current aid cycle due to changes made by the Obama administration. Filing rates increased – until the IRS took the Data Retrieval Tool offline.
FAFSA is the starting point for federal and much state financial aid – both grants and loans. Aid is often doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.
Official notice downplays impact of IRS change
Originally, the removal of the tool, which imports information from the IRS to the FAFSA application, was portrayed as a simple maintenance issue. Shortly after this announcement, a joint press release from the Department of Education and the Internal Revenue Service was released.
The joint release says the IRS took the action as a “precautionary step following concerns that information from the tool could potentially be misused by identity thieves.” It maintains that “this does not limit families’ ability to apply for aid. Applicants have other options while the data tool is unavailable.”
Before implementation of the tool this application cycle, students and their families were required to input the information manually using tax returns. However, on Sept. 14, 2015, President Obama announced significant changes to the FAFSA system specifically because the existing options were limiting the number of people who could reasonably supply the required paperwork.
The changes included:
- Allowing students to begin submitting their FAFSA early, starting Oct. 1, 2016.
- Allowing students and parents to report their prior prior tax return, starting with the 2017-18 FAFSA.
This year many students took advantage of the tool and early submission. The problem is those who did not use the tool prior to its removal now have to supply tax information from 2015, which may be difficult for many to find now.
Further, the purpose of the changes made by the Obama administration were implemented to reduce the difficulty of the application process, which further facilitated the racial gap in higher education.
Legislative concern over situation
Students, parents, and academic advisers aren’t the only ones concerned about the lack of information from the IRS and the Department of Education. Congress has stepped in with a strongly worded letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
The letter, sent Thursday, requests the secretary comply with the following by no later than March 24:
- An explanation of the timeline of events from the beginning of the outage.
- An estimated reinstatement date.
- Steps the department is taking to remedy the situation.
- Actions the department will take going forward to protect applicant privacy.
- Submission of department policies and procedures for security issues and data privacy.
The bipartisan letter was signed by:
- Lamar Alexander (R) – Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; former Secretary of Education (1991-1993)
- Patty Murray (D) – Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
- Virginia Foxx (R) – Chairwoman, House Committee on Education and the Workforce;
- Robert C. Scott (D) – Ranking Member, House Committee on Education and the Workforce
An even larger group of bipartisan senators and representatives sent letters to the department and IRS requesting specific information on the reported security breach, what data may have been compromised, and a timeline of exactly what actions were taken.
The Trump administration and student aid
On Thursday, the Trump administration published a proposed budget. Under the proposal, the department would receive some of the largest federal cuts. Two of the largest will directly impact students seeking financial aid for college. The Pell Grant program which will be cut by $3.9 billion. Other higher education programs slated for cuts include:
- TRIO – Eight programs designed to assist first-generation college students, low-income individuals, and individuals with disabilities as they transition from middle school to college.
- Gear Up – A grant designed to increase the number of students from low-income households who are prepared to successfully enter postsecondary education.
- Work-Study Programs – Programs designed to provide part-time employment to low-income students enrolled in undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs.
- Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant – A grant paid directly to the college financial aid office to assist students who qualify as part of their FAFSA application.
While the proposed cuts are unrelated to the current loss of the tool, the timing is unfortunate. Students trying to find a way to afford college are facing increased difficulty to apply for programs while they are still available while also being told many of those programs may not be available in the future.