Reading a current article from Higher Ed on the IRS removing access to the
Data Retrieval Tool, I found the following comment: “Not having this data
retrieval tool is not a hardship for families completing the FAFSA.
Everybody has to keep copies of their tax returns and documentation for
many years in case they are audited. All folks have to do is get out their copy
and type in the numbers in the correct slots on the FAFSA. It is not difficult!”
I agree, for many families this is not hard. But consider the following: education
is a way to move up an economic class. We know that individuals who graduate
from college have a higher earning potential. We have read about house cleaners
and custodians that send their children to college. These children become
lawyers and doctors, earning much more than their parents. This pulls an entire
family and their descendants out of poverty. In return these families contribute
back to the community helping others to follow the same path. Upward
mobility is a tenant of the “American Way”.
Imagine for a moment, you are that parent who did not finish high school.
Or, in some cases, did not attend middle school. Your family needed you to
work to help provide a basic living, so that is what you did. Now you have to
be able to read a tax form and understand the words. Those with a middle
school reading ability cannot understand the words or what they mean.
Given this, how does a parent enter the correct data into the correct fields when
the words used have no meaning to the parent…or worse, the parent has an
incorrect understanding of the words? The instructions do say put tax form line
“whatever” into FAFSA box “right here”. This works only if you can figure out
what tax form you filed.
Imagine for a moment, you are moving on a regular basis. Your financial
situation changes with each job change. Your landlord won’t care for the property
or you move housing projects looking for a safer place for your family. Moving
costs money, money you don’t have so you “do it yourself”. And we all know each
time you move you lose stuff…usually the important stuff. So keeping tax return
documents is expected but maybe not realistic for these families, especially if
housing space is tight.
These students usually attend a community college which doesn’t have the
resources to walk each student through the FAFSA process. Parents are
embarrassed to admit their lack of understanding. Students find college is just
one more very hard thing to do. And so the very people that could benefit the
most from post high school education just quit. The process is just too hard.
Removing the Data Retrieval Tool is just one more roadblock to higher education.
As best we can tell, no one has reported an actual identity theft from the Data
Retrieval Tool. In fact, using the tool is cumbersome and requires access to the
exact address on the tax forms that were filed: including upper case letters,
abbreviations, and where you placed the apartment number. Yes, it could happen.
But we didn’t shut down Target when they had a data breach. Yahoo has not
been shut down due to its data breach. Is this a reasonable response? You decide.
And while you decide, consider that the generation of high school students that
may not attend college will be the generation paying taxes and running the
country when you and I are old and facing multiple health problems.
Susan Teerlink is the accountability and admissions coach for College Funding Advisors, LLC,
located in Harrisonburg, VA. She was also a co-author on the book Secrets Of How To Avoid
Overpaying For College and is involved with GRASP, the Great Aspirations Scholarship
Program, a non-profit based in Richmond, Virginia. You can read her other articles at