Feds boost students.gov services

A group of federal agencies developing an online information service for college students and universities plans to add new features to its World Wide Web site in coming months, enabling students to plan their finances more carefully and enhancing the security of online transactions.

The site, Access America for Students, went live on the Web (www.students.gov) in April to serve as a central Web site that students can use to find information on federal educational services, career services and benefits.

But architects of the online service - which was developed through a partnership involving the Education Department, the General Services Administration and other federal agencies and universities - want to make the site more interactive, enabling students to conduct business transactions, reserve campsites at national parks, file their taxes or submit applications electronically for federal programs.

"What we're trying to do is make it easy for the public," said David Temoshok, a GSA employee who directs the Access America program. Currently, electronic information a student might need is scattered on dozens of federal Web sites, and transactions with federal agencies are paper-based, he said.

Next month, GSA and Education will begin to add more services to the site with the introduction of an online "calculator," which will allow students to predict the duration and amount of a loan payment, according to Temoshok. In February, the program will inaugurate an online service that will enable students to submit change-of-address forms electronically to the U.S. Postal Service.

Also in February, the Department of Veterans Affairs plans to make available an electronic version of the monthly form the department uses to verify the eligibility of veterans who receive educational benefits payments from VA. Students will be able to fill out and submit the form online, Temoshok said.

"It's a very paper-intensive process, and it's also very labor-intensive for VA," said Ted Van Hintum, the VA liaison working with GSA and Education on the Access America program. Van Hintum said his agency processes about 150,000 of the paper forms each month.

Temoshok and other program officials also plan to beef up security. Officials plan to use GSA's recently awarded Access Certificates for Electronic Services contract to provide encryption and digital signature technology for making transactions on the Web site secure.

Program officials also want to create a robust online function that will enable students to see a full picture of their financial aid history and status via a feature known as Student Account Manager (SAM). An official at a university also could use SAM to see how much in federal financial aid was coming to his school.

The university uses SAM to verify its numbers in the federal Pell Grant program and the federal direct loan program, whereas it used to verify the numbers with two separate Education offices, said Joan Thompson, treasurer of Iowa State University, one of several universities involved in a SAM pilot that began in July.

Temoshok said the SAM feature ultimately may include access to student information held by private-sector lenders that students have tapped to help finance their education.

Mark Cannon - executive director of the Coalition for Student Loan Reform, a group consisting of state and nonprofit organizations that administer and fund the federal Guaranteed Student Loan Program - said his organization will monitor the online security aspects of Access America for Students.

"I think we would only consider Access America a success if it led to the availability of electronic digital signatures," he said. "Our prime interest in Access America is hopefully that it will get our government partners comfortable with electronic digital protocols."

Cannon said the financial services sector has used the electronic security for years in the form of personal identification numbers at automated teller machines or as modern encryption software to protect online monetary transactions.

He said secure online transactions will make the lending process more efficient and fast.

But, he cautioned, "We, along with our school colleagues, don't want Access America to be duplicative of processes that already work well," Cannon said. "Give us something that we don't have."


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