FAFSA

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool: What You Need to Know

The Department of Education Federal Student Aid (FSA) division announced late last week that they have temporarily shut down the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) option on the FAFSA.  The shutdown was in response to security concerns identified by the Internal Revenue Service and is part of a wider effort of the IRS to enhance taxpayer security. 

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool was one of many efforts made by FSA to simplify the FAFSA application process.  It allowed families to quickly and easily import their income information from the IRS database without having to manually transfer information from paper tax returns.

With the DRT unavailable for the next several weeks, what’s a family to do?  That depends on your situation:

If you have already filed a FAFSA using the DRT: 

  • You probably don’t need to do anything. Your financial information has already been imported, and is available to the colleges you have authorized release to on your FAFSA.
  • If selected by FSA or your college for financial aid verification, you may need to request a paper tax return transcript from the IRS, as opposed to the easier verification by DRT.
  • While FSA has provided no indication that any FAFSA filers’ personal financial information has been compromised, and they refer to the DRT shut-down as a precautionary measure, it is always a good idea to monitor your credit reports regularly on annualcreditreport.com.

With the FAFSA having opened up for completion in October this year and most incoming freshman application deadlines having passed at this point, the families of the majority of high school seniors fall into the above category.  Students must re-apply for financial aid for each of their four years of college, however, and many continuing student application deadlines are not until April or May.  Therefore, many returning students, and their parents, will be looking to complete their FAFSAs in the coming weeks.

If you have not yet filed your FAFSA for 2017/18: 

  • If you have an application deadline coming up, you will need to submit your FAFSA without the use of the DRT. When asked for income information, you will need to manually transcribe the appropriate numbers from your 2015 tax return.
  • Take care that you’re copying the appropriate line item from your tax return. The FAFSA indicates the appropriate line item on the 1040/1040A/1040EZ for each relevant question, and being one line off could dramatically affect financial aid eligibility.
  • FSA will send you a link to your Student Aid Report (SAR) once your FAFSA has been processed. Be sure to review your SAR carefully and correct any mistakes in a timely manner.
  • Under no circumstances, should you wait until the DRT is back up and running to file your FAFSA if that means you will miss a financial aid application deadline. While deadlines are soft at some colleges, at others, they are very strict, and being one day late could jeopardize thousands of dollars of aid.

Note that the IRS Data Retrieval Tool is also used by student loan borrowers applying for an income-dependent repayment plan.  Like FAFSA-filers selected for verification, student loan borrowers needing to document their income while the DRT is unavailable can request a tax return transcript from the IRS.

While the shut-down of the DRT may lead to additional hassle for families in the process of accessing federal student aid programs, we must applaud the Department of Education and Internal Revenue Service for working to ensure the continued security of taxpayer information.  We can only hope that all available resources are being directed to this issue and that the Data Retrieval Tool is brought back up quickly and securely, so that the nerve-wracking process of applying for financial aid is made a little bit easier for students and their families.

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Written by Shannon Vasconcelos
Shannon Vasconcelos is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, she was a Senior Financial Aid Officer at Tufts University and Boston University.