Feds work on student online service

Federal agencies last week began working with college officials to design a World Wide Web-based program that would provide college students with a host of government services, including financial aid services and tax filing.

Access America for Students, part of Vice President Al Gore's Access America plan, will center around an online "one-stop shop" where college students could apply for financial aid and passports, determine if they qualify for student loans and even make campsite reservations.

"All the applications and transactions they do with us now, they'd be able to do electronically," said Greg Woods, chief operating officer at the Education Department's Office of Student Financial Assistance and the former deputy director of Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

The one-stop shop also could include access to electronic commerce applications, such as online accounts that students could use to receive student loans or to manage college-related transactions such as purchases at a campus bookstore.

The Internal Revenue Service has joined the Access America for Students team to foster online tax services, and the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service have become involved to let students reserve campsites online.

Participants in the program met last week for a two-day meeting at which they began mapping out protocols for data exchange, rules for operating the program and time tables, Woods said. The meeting brought together technical minds and program-oriented minds, Woods said.

Creating a single forum through which all the agencies can offer the services via a similar user interface, however, will require intense coordination, and participants in the program met late last week to begin working out the details. Plans agreed upon last week will lead to a pilot program this fall involving six schools: DeVry Institute of Technology, Illinois; New York University; Tarrant County Junior College, Texas; the University of Florida; the University of Missouri at Kansas City; the University of Northern Colorado; and Western Governor's University, Utah.

The project also will require focusing on security, especially to protect e-commerce transactions and privacy. But Gore, in prepared remarks given at this month's Global Forum on Reinventing Government conference, expressed confidence in the ability to make the program secure. "The technology exists today to provide the necessary protection to conduct highly sensitive financial transactions online," Gore said. "Our aim in this pilot is to prove these same technologies are sufficiently secure for people to do business with the government."

According to Woods, Access America for Students might work like this: A student would register for the program through one of the agencies. After registering, the student would be able to access a Web site using a log-in name and password. The site would include a list of links to begin the various transactions that a student would perform—whether it is seeking qualification for a student loan or alerting federal agencies of an address change.

The site, which would have access to student information collected when the student registers online, would eliminate potentially redundant steps in collecting information to speed up the process to apply for services or to conduct business online.

The concept for the program already has been tested with focus groups comprised of college students. "They seem to greet the idea with a lot of enthusiasm," Woods said. "To them, it means they don't have to spend so much time waiting in line."

Ronald Shunk, director of financial aid at Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pa., questions how much the services will be used by students. The computer-based services in use at Gettysburg College are not accessed as much as they could be, he said. "Our computing people tell us that it's essentially underutilized," Shunk said.

In addition, Shunk said a lack of involvement by states may hurt the development of Access America for Students. "Federal-based [programs] are important, but that's not the only aid to students," he said. State funds and aid from civic groups as well as National Merit Corp. are significant sources of student financial aid, he said.

But Shunk said some trends are good for Access America for Students'. Many universities are starting to require students to have computers, and each new generation of students comes to college with greater familiarity of the Web.

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