Filling out the FAFSA is frustrating under the best circumstances. While I was excited about some of the ways the application process was made easier this past fall (“Get ready to apply for the FAFSA“), it looks like some of the tools to make life easier actually got harder in the past month. If you’re attending (or applying to) college in one of the states where the FAFSA deadline has already passed, or if you already completed the application: congratulations! You’re done and don’t have to worry.
For the rest of us who tend to put things off until the last minute, plan to set some time aside, pull together your parents’ 2015 IRS paperwork, and get ready to manually enter all that data into the FAFSA. The Data Retrieval Tool, which allowed students to grab that data and fill it out almost instantly, has gone down with no revival date in site.
The vanishing data retrieval tool
If you started working on your FAFSA in early March—one of the peak times for FAFSAs to be filed—you may have noticed that the Data Retrieval Tool suddenly wasn’t working any more. The Data Retrieval Tool connected the FAFSA directly to IRS data, enabling students to automatically populate all of the tax questions. It vanished on March 3, 2017, with no notice. Almost a week later, the Department of Education and the IRS released a joint press release explaining that it had been suspended due to concerns the tool could be used for identity theft. A week after that, Wall Street Journal reporters Melissa Korn and Douglas Belkin broke the story “Online Tool to Apply for College Aid Was Taken Down Due to ‘Criminal Activity.’”
Because the outage in the tool could make some students miss deadlines—if they don’t have their family’s 2015 tax data handy, it can take weeks for a hard copy to arrive from the IRS after it’s requested—a bipartisan group of lawmakers got involved to try to get things back on track. Texas and Indiana are among the states that have postponed their in-state deadline to allow students additional time to apply.
What should I do with my FAFSA?
The Data Retrieval Tool was supposed to be the government’s lifehack for the FAFSA—so now that it’s down, here’s the old fashioned way to get the application completed:
- Grab your family’s 2015 tax forms. If you don’t have them, submit a request online, and the IRS will send you the transcript.
- Visit the Department of Education’s handy FAFSA tips to make sure you have all the documentation you need.
- If you are applying in a state with a deadline that is looming and you’re worried about having time to complete the FAFSA, contact the college where you’ve applied.
- Be ready for your application to be flagged for “verification,” which means you may have to supply additional paperwork.
The most important thing to keep in mind: do not let this hitch stop you from applying for student aid. It’s a pain, and it’s complicated (more now than previously!), but so many programs for which you may be eligible depend on this paperwork, it can really impact you if you don’t fill it out. So persist! Hang in there, keep trying, and don’t give up, and with luck, the Data Retrieval Tool will be made secure and available for next year’s applications.