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Disabled tax tool causes FAFSA problems for UH-Hilo students, applicants

Hundreds of University of Hawaii at Hilo students and applicants are facing extra hurdles applying for financial aid for next year because a major online tax data tool is out of commission.

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool allows students to easily input tax return data into the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a form required of students to determine eligibility for financial assistance.

The tool was disabled in early March because of “security concerns,” the IRS said in a news release, and likely will be down until at least October, the start of the next FAFSA season.

Students can still apply for aid manually, but the process is slower and more difficult, particularly for roughly one-third of FAFSA applicants who get flagged for verification.

Without the data tool, those applicants flagged to verify their data now must obtain a copy of their family’s tax transcript from the IRS. Students nationwide, including many at UH-Hilo, reported problems getting tax transcripts, resulting in a longer wait to learn what sort of financial help they’d receive from schools to which they applied.

At UH-Hilo, there are about 360 FAFSA applicants — mostly prospective freshmen — currently facing such verification issues, said Sherrie Padilla, UH-Hilo enrollment services manager.

“The bottom line is, now there’s a really big delay because the data retrieval tool isn’t available,” Padilla said. “Students aren’t getting their financial aid (packages) in a timely manner because we need that info. And because they’re not getting financial aid (packages), we’re worried they might have trouble making a decision about where to attend.”

The Hilo campus unveiled a plan this month to bolster enrollment by 300 students throughout the next five years. Administrators are concerned the FAFSA tool outage could ultimately effect fall enrollment if incoming students “don’t know what their financial aid package would be from UH-Hilo,” Padilla said.

The problem is more likely to impact low-income and first-generation college students who might be more likely to apply late, and become discouraged by additional challenges with less assistance from friends and family, Padilla added.

About 45 percent of UH-Hilo students qualify for federal Pell Grants, which are awarded to low-income students. About 75 percent receive some sort of aid. The campus receives about 8,000 FAFSA applications each year.

FAFSA information also is needed to be considered for UH-Hilo’s institutional aid, which is largely awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

“We have institutional aid available for next fall, but we’re going to run out,” Padilla said. “So the concern is, a student who maybe filed later or hasn’t filed yet or is having difficulty getting verified because of tax transcript issues is going to lose out on institutional funding because of this delay.”

The IRS said in the news release that the data tool will be down until more security protections can be added.

UH-Hilo now is mulling ways to help affected students complete the process more quickly, Padilla said. Administrators also are hoping alternatives become available, for example allowing applicants to submit a signed tax return in lieu of a tax transcript.

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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