By guest blogger Liana Loewus
The Internal Revenue Service and Education Department announced earlier this month that a tool for helping students apply for federal financial aid would be offline for several weeks—but now both agencies are saying it won’t be back until October.
The IRS cited security concerns when it shut off the Data Retrieval Tool, which allows students and parents to import tax information directly into their Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The tool was down for about a week in early March before the federal agencies publicly acknowledged it.
In a statement yesterday, the groups wrote that “students and families should plan for the tool to be offline until the start of the next FAFSA season,” which is in six months. The statement said that identify thieves may have attempted to secure personal information through the tool (though it wasn’t clear on whether or the extent to which this actually happened).
“While this tool provides an important convenience for applicants, we cannot risk the safety of taxpayer data,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, said in the statement. “Protecting taxpayer data has to be the highest priority, and we will continue working with [the Education Department’s Federal Student Aid office] to bring this tool back in a safe and secure manner.”
Students and families can still file their FAFSAs, they just need to input their tax information on their own.
Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, called on the agencies to ease the burden on students, parents, and institutions who are dealing with the unexpected outage.
“IRS Commissioner John Koskinen’s statement that this tool merely provides a ‘convenience for applicants’ betrays a disheartening lack of understanding about how vital this tool has become in streamlining the financial aid application process,” he wrote.
Carrie Warick, the director of policy and advocacy for the National College Access Network, warned that security increases with overly stringent requirements about, for instance, the types of credit users have, which the IRS has used in the past, would hurt low-income families.
“It is crucial to secure the tool, but doing so in a way that cuts off access for low-income students would defeat the goal of the DRT,” she wrote in a blog post.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress Demand More Info
Members of Congress have been miffed about the Education Department’s handling of the outage as well. On March 16, prior to the recent announcement, leaders of the House Oversight Committee and the Committee on Education and the Workforce sent a stern letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos requesting a briefing on the incident.
“Millions of students applying for federal financial aid each year use the DRT, and a loss of functionality, even if confined to days or weeks, has the potential to cause significant disruptions,” wrote the bipartisan group. “This is especially true for first-generation and low-income students who rely on the DRT tool, and for students in states that had not yet reached state priority deadlines for applying for financial aid when the DRT was taken offline.”
The House Oversight Committee also sent a letter to DeVos yesterday stating that “cybersecurity at the Department is far short of where it should be.” It noted that the department has been using outdated security protocols for several years now, as determined by Inspector General audits, but it did not mention the Data Retrieval Tool specifically.
A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.