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Education

Simplify the college financial aid process by linking income tax to application

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For many, the college application process may be a little easier this year because the Internal Revenue Service has again switched on its computer program allowing income tax records to be meshed into college financial aid applications.

For many young people, financial aid decides if they will go to college and where. Costs are so high, an increasingly smaller percentage of the population can just write a check. That is the attraction of New York's Excelsior Scholarship: to make public colleges free for some.

University at Buffalo Higher Education Administration Professor Nathan Daun-Barnett has a long-running project to help families fill out the dreaded FAFSA application for aid, made harder when the IRS turned off the tax connection. Daun-Barnett says the tax retrieval connection can simplify the process.

"Creating that IRS tax retrieval tool was a really important step, to begin with," says Daun-Barnett. "It became more important this past year when the federal government made the two important changes that I just talked about, which was shifting the start of the application to October 1 and then allowing families to use prior-year taxes to estimate their actual award."

The farther down the income ladder, the more problems enter into the process.

"Many of these families don't fit that traditional middle class model," says Daun-Barnett. "One, you may be living with somebody who's not your actual parent. You may not know who is responsible for you from a tax standpoint and you may not have anybody who legitimately files because they don't have any taxable forms of income."

Daun-Barnett says there also are issues with people reluctant to go online and frequent moves of residence so they do not match tax records - making the IRS connection much more complicated. Even so, as more families recognize the need for college and government recognizing the problems, applications are getting slowly easier.

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