ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Warning - the IRS Data Retrieval Tool is down. If those words don't plunge you into a cold sweat, then you might not be a high school senior or college student racing to apply for financial aid. We'll let Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team explain.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: For those of you who aren't sweating, here's a little background. Students who need help paying for college fill out something called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It's always been hard, with dozens and dozens of questions, especially detailed questions about parents' income and taxes.
CARRIE WARICK: If you don't come from the stable background with two parents who are living at home and have both gone to college, trying to find those answers can be a large impediment for our students.
TURNER: Carrie Warick is director of policy and advocacy with the National College Access Network. She says last year the government made a few big changes to make the FAFSA easier. They gave students more time, and they also - and this is key - made it so that more students can use this thing from the IRS called the Data Retrieval Tool. I saw it work firsthand last fall visiting a high school in Alexandria, Va.
Student Devin Butler was filling out his FAFSA with help from college adviser Margaret Feldman. He made it to the tax section, and then he held his breath as the Data Retrieval Tool answered all those detailed questions automatically.
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DEVIN BUTLER: All right.
MARGARET FELDMAN: OK. There we go.
BUTLER: There we go.
FELDMAN: All the numbers we need, so go ahead and hit - check this box, and hit transfer now.
TURNER: Butler finished his FAFSA just a few minutes later, and he's not alone, says Warick.
WARICK: Particularly for high school seniors, filing rates are up 74 percent through the middle of February.
TURNER: Which brings us to this month when that magical data retrieval tool stopped working. At first, students and school counselors thought it's a glitch, so they waited a day or two. But, says Warick...
WARICK: They can't just wait for it to work.
TURNER: That's because late last week, the IRS said the tool won't be back for several weeks. Why - out of concerns, quote, "that information from the tool could potentially be misused by identity thieves." Sarah Jensen is director of college access and success for the Commit! Partnership in Dallas, and she says students can still input their parents' 2015 tax data by hand assuming they can get it. But...
SARAH JENSEN: Imagine what it would feel like if on April 1, two weeks before the tax deadline, TurboTax and all your online filing sites went down with no notice.
TURNER: In Texas where Jensen works, that deadline is technically today. It's known as a priority deadline. Most states have them. Students who apply in time are most likely to get the state and institutional aid they qualify for before the money runs out. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.
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