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The IRS Data Retrieval Tool Outage: How Will it Affect You?

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While technological advances and online forms have made the college admissions process easier in many ways, they’re far from perfect. A bug or outage in an important system, particularly right in the thick of application season, can have a huge impact on current college applicants.


One such important outage has recently made the news. As NPR reported earlier this month — under the headline Applying For College Aid Just Got Harder— the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, a tool within the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that helps applicants provide accurate financial information, is currently offline, and is expected to remain that way for several weeks at least.


If you’ve seen these headlines, you’re probably wondering how this outage will affect your financial aid application and your ability to pay for college. The short answer to this question is that the FAFSA is functioning as usual, but if you haven’t yet filled it out, you should know that doing so will likely require more time and effort from you than originally anticipated.


Read on for more information about the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, this outage, and what you can do to ensure that your college plans aren’t derailed.


What’s the IRS Data Retrieval Tool?

We’ve covered the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, or DRT, in our Ultimate Guide to Filling Out the FAFSA. Basically, this tool allows you to digitally link your tax return information to your online FAFSA application, creating a way for you to copy your tax information into the FAFSA more quickly, easily, and accurately.


When you fill out the FAFSA, you’ll encounter a button that allows you to enable the IRS DRT if you so choose. Once you’ve logged in, the tool copies much of your tax information directly into your FAFSA, freeing you from having to do that data entry by hand — and from any errors you might make along the way.


The IRS DRT came into being because filling out the FAFSA manually isn’t always easy. Some students never finished their FAFSAs because they ran out of time or couldn’t find the right documents. Others made mistakes in entering tax data and had their aid eligibility calculated incorrectly as a result.


Not everyone is eligible to use the IRS DRT when filling out the FAFSA, but for those who are, it can be a big help. If you were planning on filling out the FAFSA this year, it’s fairly likely that you intended to use the DRT in that process.


What does it mean that the IRS Data Retrieval Tool is down?

According to the official joint statement released by the U.S. Department of Education and the IRS, as of March 9, 2017, the IRS DRT has been suspended, meaning it’s not currently available for use when filling out the FAFSA.


The stated reason for the DRT outage is security concerns. After questions were raised about the possibility of identity thieves and other third parties accessing the sensitive information used by the tool, it was taken offline so that security features could be improved. It appears that this is a proactive measure, not a reaction to a known data breach, so those who have already used the DRT can breathe easy.


The Department of Education has said that they expected the IRS DRT to be down for at least a few weeks while the system is updated. No more specific information has yet been released as to when the tool will be operational again.


It’s important to note that the FAFSA itself is not broken or offline. You can and should still apply for financial aid using the FAFSA. What’s unavailable right now is one particular tool that’s meant to make the process of filling out the FAFSA easier and more accurate.


How will this affect my college application process?

Since most of our readers at CollegeVine are high school students preparing for college, we’ll focus on how the IRS DRT outage will impact current college applicants. (This outage also affects current college students, students selected for verification, and some people who are currently in the student loan repayment process, but that isn’t as relevant to our readers at the moment.)


In the short term, how this affects you mostly depends upon where you are right now in the process of applying for financial aid for the 2017-2018 school year, and in particular, whether you’d already submitted your FAFSA before the beginning of the outage.


Students Who Have Already Submitted the 2017-2018 FAFSA

If you already completed and submitted your FAFSA prior to the beginning of the IRS DRT outage, you’re likely in the clear. The DRT outage won’t affect data that has already been retrieved from the IRS. However, the effects of the outage may mean that your colleges’ financial aid offices will be especially busy, and it may take you longer to get award letters or responses from them than it would otherwise.


Students Who Have Not Filled Out the 2017-2018 FAFSA Yet

Unfortunately, if you haven’t filled out your FAFSA yet, this outage will result in some additional work for you. When you fill out your FAFSA, you’ll have to enter your 2015 tax information manually, based on your own copies of your 2015 tax returns. You’ll also have to deal with potential crowding and delays at your financial aid offices.

If I’m affected, what does this mean for me?

First of all, we should reiterate that the FAFSA itself is still available online and functional. The IRS DRT tool is broken, not the actual FAFSA application. You’ll still be able to use the FAFSA to apply for federal, state, and institutional financial aid.


Since the FAFSA itself is not affected by this outage, many financial aid application deadlines are still in effect — and in some states, these deadlines are coming up very soon. This is where you may run into trouble.


With the IRS DRT unavailable, filling out your FAFSA will require you to copy data from your 2015 tax forms into the FAFSA yourself. While this is certainly doable, you may not be prepared for the additional time and effort this will require, and you may not have the relevant documents on hand right now.


Meeting the appropriate deadlines for applying for aid in your state may be a major factor in determining what aid you receive and where you can attend college. Often, state aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so it is possible for the budget to run out. It’s important that you take note of what the IRS DRT outage means for your application and take the necessary steps to meet your deadlines regardless of this roadblock.  


You should also know that, fortunately, the IRS DRT outage will not in itself affect how much or what kind of financial aid you’ll be eligible for. All it affects is how you go about entering your information, not how your aid award is calculated.


So what do I do right now?

If you still need to fill out your FAFSA for the 2017-2018 school year, you’ll need to have a copy of your 2015 tax returns to work from. If you can’t find your own copy of this document, you may be able to get it from your tax preparation software or your tax preparer. Otherwise, you’ll have to request a tax transcript from the IRS in order to obtain the information you need.  


Find or request your tax return as soon as possible. This process can take time, and as we’ve mentioned, time is of the essence, especially for governmental aid deadlines, which tend to be quite rigid.


If you’re worried about your ability to meet institutional financial aid deadlines due to the IRS DRT outage, call the financial aid offices of the colleges to which you’re applying. These are the people who can to tell you how your aid application to that school will be affected, as well as whether the school can offer deadline extensions or other assistance to affected applicants.


Keep your eyes and ears open for more updates from the IRS and the Department of Education. Since these entities haven’t been terribly specific in their public statements, we’re still not sure when the IRS DRT issue will be resolved.


Hopefully, the changes currently being made to the IRS DRT will help to keep the FAFSA process safe and reliable in the future by improving data security. It will bring relief to many applicants to know that these improvements are being put in place before any major problems occur, rather than after.


However, there’s no denying that this outage comes at a very inconvenient time for many students. Anything that makes applying for financial aid less easy has the potential to deeply affect people and their college choices.


If you’re among those affected, it’s essential that you stay informed, be mindful of your deadlines, and keep working to make your college goals possible. Despite this one obstacle in the financial aid application process, resources are still out there that can make attending college a financially feasible option for you.  


To learn more about filling out the FAFSA and the financial aid process in general, check out these posts from the CollegeVine blog:



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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.