People Paying Back Student Loans Could Also Be Hurt By Outage Of FAFSA Tool

Image courtesy of Eric Gjerde

A Department of Education decision take down an online tool that helped student loan applicants file for aid isn’t just making things difficult on students. It’s also a problem for those who are repaying their student loans through a federal payment plan.

The Department of Education took the Data Retrieval Tool offline in March after finding evidence that hackers used the tool to obtain consumers’ personal information and then use those details to fill out fraudulent tax returns.

While the Data Retrieval Tool was meant to ease the burden of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid by automatically filling in an applicant’s previous year’s tax information, MarketWatch reports it is also used by student loan borrowers taking part in repayment plans.

Borrowers enrolled in student loan repayment plans — which cap the amount a borrower is require to pay each month based on their income — are required to resubmit their annual income recertification.

These consumers can speed up this process by using the currently-offline tool to re-certify their income with student loan servicers. Because consumers can’t seamlessly retrieve their tax information while the tool is down, advocates say their participation in the repayment programs could be put in jeopardy.

“I just foresee a lot of delays and a lot of errors, and these delays and errors are going to be costly for borrowers,” Persis Yu, the director of the student loan borrower assistance project at the National Consumer Law Center, tells MarketWatch.

Yu notes that in the past, borrowers have reported difficulty in the re-certification process when using paper applications.

In fact, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported last week that it had received a number of complaints from borrowers having difficulty enrolling and maintaining their status in repayment programs.

For instance, many borrowers told the CFPB they received insufficient information from their servicers to meet deadlines and lengthy processing times. Others reported that servicers lost documentation and offered unclear guidance when seeking to switch from one income-driven repayment plan to another.

In light of these issues, Yu sent a letter [PDF] to the CFPB asking for information on how the agency is working to ensure borrower’s aren’t affected by the Data Retrieval Tool’s suspension. For example, she worries that a process that previously took 15 minutes could now take days, potentially leading borrowers to miss deadlines.

In response to Yu’s letter [PDF], CFPB student loan ombudsman Seth Frotman said the agency is “closely monitoring” student loan servicers to ensure borrowers don’t run into trouble maintaining their status in repayment programs.

He also noted that federal law provides specific protections to borrowers seeking to enroll or re-certify in income-driven plans. For example, borrowers have the right to provide alternative proof of income when tax information is unavailable. Additionally, borrowers have the right to a 10-day grace period after a borrower’s recertification deadline in which they can still submit an application and avoid the consequences of a missed deadline.