49 Days & Counting: Addressing the IRS DRT Debacle

April 18, 2017

By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy 

It’s been 49 days since the IRS Data Retrieval Tool went dark. As federal officials work to restore the tool by the start of the next FAFSA season, NCAN recommends that they provide immediate relief for struggling students by expanding guidance on using a tax transcript to complete the FAFSA, and allowing alternative paths for verification. NCAN continues to press for a secure, accessible solution and help college access professionals and the students they serve work around this potentially crippling obstacle to obtaining financial aid.  

As readers likely know, students use the IRS DRT to transfer their financial information, and that of their parents if applicable, from the IRS to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Student loan borrowers use the same tool to confirm their income to the department’s Federal Student Aid office when they are applying for or renewing participation in an income-driven loan repayment plan. But the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Internal Revenue Service took down the DRT with no notice on March 3. Officials later said the tool will remain unavailable until the 2018-19 filing season, but the outage has caused significant questions and confusion in the field. The IRS says the DRT was used in a scam involving fraudulent tax returns, and a criminal investigation is now underway.

NCAN has been at the front of advocacy for students from the beginning of the DRT outage. Members first alerted NCAN staff that students were unable to access the tool before federal agencies had even spoken publicly about the outage. In particular, College Forward, Academic Success Program – Dallas, Commit! Dallas, the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, and the Denver Scholarship Program were all instrumental in contacting elected officials to let them know of this issue. These elected officials, particularly Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), were able to ask questions of the IRS and ED before the agencies confirmed March 9 that the tool would be down “several weeks.”

In a blog post viewed thousands of times, NCAN shared recommendations for those working with students on next steps for FAFSA completion, as well as a how-to webinar and materials that NCAN member Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis presented to more than 800 advisors and counselors. Those staff should assure their students the FAFSA is still available online and show them how to obtain tax returns to complete the FAFSA without the DRT. Let them know early and often that they will need their tax returns or, alternatively, a tax transcript. Even if they have their returns, NCAN recommends that after completing the FAFSA, low-income students request a tax transcript in case they are selected for verification. Additional support is available here from the IRS and here from Federal Student Aid. The IRS is also contacting any taxpayers who had suspicious activity on their account about possible identity theft. 

It is vital that student and taxpayer information remain secure in the tools that help these populations interact with government agencies. The tools also must be user-friendly for students. As NCAN continues to request a secure return of the IRS DRT by the Oct. 1 start of FAFSA season, we will more immediately continue to advocate for alternative forms of verification, such as using a signed tax return as outlined in this joint letter from NCAN, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and The Institute for College Access and Success. In the short term, it is crucial that students are able to complete verification before the approaching May 1 College Decision Day.

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