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IRS tool used by millions of families to complete vital federal application form for college financial aid may be unavailable for weeks to review security controls.
A widely-used online data retrieval tool, designed to streamline applying for federal financial aid, has been taken offline due to technical issues and officials say the tool will remain unavailable for several weeks.
The tool allows college students to retrieve their family's income and tax return records electronically directly from Internal Revenue Service computers. The information is required to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form as part of the annual application process families go through to seek financial aid from the federal government.
FAFSA.gov, the Federal Student Aid site that hosts the application, and the online application itself remain operational.
Department of Education and IRS officials said in a joint statement that the IRS has temporarily suspended the tool out of concern that thieves could potentially misuse the site. Officials said in the statement:
"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. The scope of the issue is being explored, and the IRS and FSA are jointly investigating the issue. At this point, we believe the issue is relatively isolated, and no additional action is needed by taxpayers or people using these applications. The IRS and FSA are actively working on a way to further strengthen the security of information provided by the DRT. We will provide additional information when we have a specific timeframe for returning the DRT or other details to share."
National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators President Justin Draeger confirmed to EdScoop's sister publication, FedScoop, on Thursday that the Internal Revenue Service interface tool has been down since at least last Friday.
Draeger stressed that students should not be deterred from filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), since they can refer to copies of their parent's tax filings, but he anticipated extra hurdles for both filers and those reviewing the applications.
“It’s true people can still complete FAFSA,” Draeger said. “The problem is that the entire application and verification processes are built on this IRS data retrieval tool. So for some students it is going to be a longer process and for other students it could lead to a lot of other headaches.”
“There also may be extra work on the other side of the application for those verifying information,” he added.
The IRS data retrieval tool, offered now for eight years, electronically transfers federal tax information in to the FAFSA application form used by undergraduate and graduate students to apply for grants, loans, and other forms of aid.
With the tool down, applicants now must manually upload federal tax documents, which could increase the likelihood of error because a recent change in the upload process, Draeger said.
“This is a year where we transitioned which base tax year is used,” he said. “That decision was largely based on use of this tool. Without that tool, we’re presumably going to have a larger numbers of error codes, especially with students using wrong tax year.”
The technical issue comes at a rather inopportune time: several states have FAFSA deadlines approaching, including Indiana, which has its filing deadline Friday. Texas has its deadline on March 15.
In addition, the shutdown could also affect borrowers applying for income-driven repayment plans, who will also have to manually enter that information, according to student aid advocates cited in a report from Inside Higher Ed.
The National College Access Network, a nonprofit that works for postsecondary education access, said on its Twitter account that it is also tracking the situation and informing members about what it called a “universal issue.”
Wyatt Kash contributed to this report. This report was updated March 13, to include updated reports that the shutdown may affect borrowers applying for repayment plans.