Filing the FAFSA When the IRS Data Retrieval Tool Is Not Available

The DRT Made It Easier, But It Is Still Possible to Apply for Financial Aid

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If you have ever filed a FAFSA before, you know that there is a handy little tool which made the entire process so much easier — the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, or DRT. Instead of having to copy figures manually from your federal tax returns to the FAFSA, the DRT would automatically populate the form with information taken directly from your tax files. This reduced the time necessary to complete the FAFSA, and also decreased the number of mistakes and requests for verification.

Early in March 2017, however, the DRT was deactivated for the online FAFSA site. The IRS and the Department of Education have issued a joint statement that the tool will be offline for several months because of concerns that it could be “misused by identity thieves.” It will not be available again until all security concerns have been resolved. While everyone certainly cares greatly about online data protection, that still leaves a great deal of the student population concerned about how they are going to apply for financial aid and student loans.

Some students might still need to complete a FAFSA for 2017 summer sessions or the 2017-18 academic year, while other students are looking ahead to completing the upcoming October FAFSA for 2018-19. Although the DRT definitely made the process much easier, students were able to complete the FAFSA prior to its existence, and can still do it now even though the tool is not working.

Here are some tips on how to file the FAFSA when the Data Retrieval Tool is not available:

  • Keep your tax records handy: Many families file their federal tax returns electronically, or fail to keep track of paper copies once the forms have been filed. You might need access to this information, though, so think about where you stored it and dig it out for possible use now. You will need student and parent 2015 federal tax returns for the current FAFSA which will be online through June, and your 2016 tax return for the FAFSA which will be available on October 1, 2017 for the 2018-19 academic year.
  • Select your filing approach: You can still fill out the FAFSA online, even without the tool, or you can choose to print out an application and manually complete the form. Either way is acceptable, but you must be very careful when you input figures. If using the paper version, make sure your number are legible. If using the electronic version, make sure you don’t transpose any figures when typing. Carefully review your information before submitting the application.
  • Be prepared for verification requests: Because there is more room for error in this approach, you may be selected for a process known as “verification.” This is not something to worry about; it just means the college wants to verify some of the information you provided. Changes have been instituted for determining what documentation is acceptable until this problem is fixed. For applicants who filed a return, institutions may consider a signed paper copy of the 2015 IRS tax return that was used by the tax filer for submission to the IRS as acceptable documentation to verify FAFSA/ISIR tax return information. Non-filers must attest to their reasons for not filing and provide documentation for income sources.
  • Be timely: If the tool is not fixed within the next few months, be prepared to file the FAFSA as early as possible in October to allow extra time for review and verification, if needed. Time is critical since some forms of financial aid are only available on a first-come, first-served basis.

    Despite any problems you may encounter, it is still worth your time and effort to complete this application. Federal aid, state aid, institutional aid, student loans, and even some scholarships rely on this data to calculate eligibility. This is especially true for low-income students who need all the help they can get, but also for higher-income students who are not sure about their financial aid eligibility. You will never know for sure unless you file.