When applying to college, students and their parents traditionally have worried about grades, aptitude test scores and application essays. And then there’s the complex financial aid process that requires the submission of detailed tax information.
Supplying the tax data, in fact, has long proven to be a huge headache for many families, and in some cases it’s a major barrier. But thanks to Julie Rushin of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), millions of students and their families are now benefiting from a new user-friendly system that takes away that worry about the tax information.
Under Rushin’s direction, a system was developed and built into the online Federal Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) that verifies the authenticity of those applying for aid and automatically populates the forms with their tax data.
“Previously, the applicants or their parents have had to request and obtain paper copies of their income tax returns, interpret what was needed, and then copy the required information onto various line items on the FAFSA,” said Kathleen Walters, the IRS assistant deputy commissioner for operations support. “This was a time-consuming, confusing and often error-prone process, which sometimes delayed the receipt of federal assistance.”
Each year, more than 16 million students apply online for more than $100 billion in federal college student aid, and 99 percent of the applications are submitted online.
Many questioned whether Rushin could succeed in making the necessary changes, but she was both inspired and persistent.
“When it’s the right thing to do, there has to be an answer,” said Rushin. “If tax information is preventing some students who need it most from applying for financial aid and we can remove that barrier, we have to try. It is wrong that young kids aren’t going to college because they can’t fill out the form.”
In order to make the common sense change, Rushin had to break through numerous obstacles, including issues of privacy and finding ways to keep tax information secure that would be compatible with the processes used by the IRS and Department of Education.
“The IRS is very protective of your tax information,” said Rushin. “Usually we require written consent or two levels of authentication through information on your tax form that only you would know. We knew that this was a problem for years, but had never been able to overcome this barrier.”
But Rushin, the IRS deputy chief information officer for operations, wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Julie’s response to ‘no’ was, ‘what could we do instead?’ and ‘maybe there is another option,’” said Beth Tucker, IRS deputy commissioner for operations support, who worked closely with Rushin on the project.
“Julie is a fabulous collaborator. She identified decision-makers and convened them quickly. It was an interagency, multi-office effort,” said Tucker.
Originally approached by the Department of Education, Rushin and her IRS colleagues worked with the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of the Treasury to bring the project to completion.
Rushin got the system up and running within six months of starting the project, just in time for students applying for college in 2010 to use the new system. The system has also set the stage for the same types of changes in online Pell grant applications.
“There were numerous challenges and questions making sure we were protecting taxpayer information, but Julie was able to get the IT team to think outside the box,” said Chief Technology Officer Terence Milholland. “She is unique in that she understands the business side and the IT side. It is rare where you can have somebody who can do both.”
As a 37-year veteran of the IRS, Rushin is no stranger to handling tax-related issues. In addition to this project, she oversaw the distribution of some $95 billion in economic stimulus tax breaks to more than 100 million taxpayers and spends much of her time today helping increase IRS effectiveness in delivering information technology services and solutions.
“Julie is committed to improving government performance, service to the American people and building capable and innovative leaders of the future,” said Walters, Rushin’s IRS colleague. “But as her first priority, she is most devoted to serving taxpayers.”