Federal Student Aid teams with USDS to modernize apps

The office of Federal Student Aid updated its major online system to give students and parents access to its services just over a year ago.

But technology never remains static and a year later, FSA is enhancing its FSA-ID portal with the help of some digital service experts.

Keith Wilson, the chief information officer of Federal Student Aid in the Education Department, said FSA is working with the U.S. Digital Service and other department experts to better streamline the FSA-ID portal.

Keith Wilson is the CIO of the office of Federal Student Aid in the Education Department.
Keith Wilson is the CIO of the office of Federal Student Aid in the Education Department.

“We want to meet with our customers, our borrowers specifically as well as our students and parents, to see if there are ways we can streamline that process,” Wilson said. “We migrated from our students having to enter their personal identifiable information data to just providing the identity and password in order to find or access the PII data that was in the Federal Student Aid application systems. So USDS and FSA will also work on simplifying not only the FSA-ID, but we are also going to be reviewing the income driven repayment application that we process to simplify how borrowers enroll and manage debt, and use an income driven repayment plan. This is a huge project for the department.”

He said the improvements to FSA-ID and the income driven repayment application are part of a centralized point the agency is creating for all FSA student aid borrowers.

For 17 years, students, parents and borrowers used a four-digit PIN to log in for aid and access other services. Wilson said users entered their PIN and other PII to identify themselves.

“We received a lot of requests to replace the system. So because the security of the sensitive information was extremely important, the Department of Education along with the Office of Inspector General tasked FSA to replace the Federal Student Aid PIN with a more secure log-in process for our users,” he said. “It’s comprised of a username and password that is created by the user, pretty much like you’d do either on PayPal or Verizon. This replaced the PIN with the FSA-ID. It reduced the opportunity for fraud and abuse. We actually had our IG sign off on our requirements of that FSA-ID.”

Students, parents and borrowers use a one-time email address to ensure it’s not being abused by others and it makes it more difficult for the account to be compromised.

FSA disburses approximately $150 billion a year in student loans.

Wilson said FSA is paying close attention to the feedback and reaction it receives from students, parents and borrowers about its new FSA-ID portal. He said the agency will continue to update the website as they learn more from its users.

Along with the FSA-ID effort, Wilson said he has several other priorities, including transitioning to a virtual data center and ensuring its popular websites such as studentloans.gov and studentaid.gov are mobile friendly.

“The borrowers will be able to log-on to studentloans.gov from any device and sign the master promissory note, and for those of you who have taken out a loan, the master promissory note is not official until you make that electronic signature on the note,” he said. “We also will take advantage of the interest and exit counseling from a mobile device. They will be able to apply for income driven repayment plans and the use of our repayment estimator, which students and parents can use to manage their debt.”

Wilson said all of these efforts feed into FSA’s new enterprise data warehouse. FSA also established an enterprise data office headed by a new deputy chief data officer, Dr. Bereket Tanju, who started in November.

Through the warehouse, Wilson said FSA will receive several benefits including bringing together data for analytics, eliminate challenge of accessing information from disparate databases and close down duplicative data sets.

Wilson said he and Tanju are growing a staff to include data scientists, cybersecurity experts and statisticians.

In addition to big data, Wilson said FSA has made significant progress around cybersecurity. He said since the cyber sprint last year every privileged user account requires two-factor authentication using smart identity cards.

Wilson said FSA improved its onboarding process to require security clearances are complete before the hiring process is finished.

“We had to reengineer our processes internally to ensure those things were put in place and keep the trains running,” he said. “To address the human resources piece to that, we’ve also requested an increase in pay for additional support for technology assurance, cybersecurity as well as data management. We want to look into ways of providing incentives to our cybersecurity professionals here at FSA.”

Wilson added he wants to take advantage of special hiring authorities to increase the security posture of FSA.

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