Education expands aid modernization

Education Department officials are now sifting through 4,731 ideas about how to redesign their front-end student financial aid systems.

Department officials collected the ideas at a spring conference of financial aid administrators during which they held visioning activities to help them improve the application process for and administration of federal financial aid.

The department's Federal Student Aid Office will spend as much as $800 million in the next 10 years to make applying for federal student aid easier.

Most students now apply online for financial assistance, but the process is not streamlined. Planned enhancements to the computer systems that process federal student applications will benefit not only those students but also ones who use the U.S. Postal Service to mail their applications, department officials said.

Officials already are committed to spend more than $2.3 billion on redesigning and consolidating the department’s back-end financial systems to ensure that students repay their loans fully and on time.

The Federal Student Aid Office awarded a contract to Pearson Government Solutions in February for consolidating and modernizing department’s front-end financial systems. The front-end systems process federal student aid applications and distribute financial aid.

The Pearson contract has one base year, nine one-year options and a potential value of $800 million. "We have the opportunity now to think long-term," Katie Crowley, deputy general manager of application, school eligibility and delivery channel programs at the department.

Pearson officials said the potentially long-term nature of the contract will help sustain the momentum needed to complete a complex integration project. "Where you're rebidding projects every three to four years, you tend to lose steam," said Jeff Sheetz, Pearson vice president and executive program manager for the Front End Business Integration project. In March, department officials renamed the project ADvance, the future of Aid Delivery.

The number of front-end systems has grown throughout many years as lawmakers have enacted new legislation that required department officials to add new information systems. The integration project will create a single location on the Web where students, financial aid administrators and others in the financial aid industry can find information and conduct transactions, said Crowley, ADvance project manager for the department.

Between January and mid-March, department officials processed about 10 million financial aid applications online.

Officials are trying to think outside the box about delivering federal student aid, Crowley said. "With ADvance, we have a big opportunity to do everything we want in the system."

Never, she added, have department officials had a similar opportunity for brainstorming at that scale about a new system before designing and building it.

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