Federal gov. website ‘glitch’ compromised college students’ social security numbers

Lauren Chooljian Contributor
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WASHINGTON – Private financial information belonging to as many as 5,000 college students was open for viewing on a federal government student loan website in recent weeks, according to a senior Department of Education staff member.

James Runcie, the Obama administration’s Chief Operation Officer of Federal Student Aid at the Department of Education, said during a congressional hearing Tuesday that a “computer glitch” during the month of October allowed users who logged in to the website saw other students’ information — including social security numbers — instead of their own. The website, he said, was affected for approximately six or seven minutes.

“We responded as quickly as we could,” Runcie told subcommittee members in response to their questions. “In terms of overall security architecture, that’s something we are very concerned about, and investing meaningful sums of money. But when you have this scale of a system in transition sometimes glitches occur.”

The Department of Education, Runcie added, shut down the site for 48 hours, and immediately notified students who might have been impacted.

Runcie was on Capitol Hill for a House Education and Workforce subcommittee hearing to evaluate the government’s transition to the new federal Direct Loan Program. Republican lawmakers have criticized the program for not providing students and schools with enough customer service or sufficient debt counseling services.

North Carolina GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx said college students have complained that their transition to the new Direct Loan Program and its website was confusing and problematic.
“Although the Department of Education had lofty promises of strong customer service when this transition began, many schools have voiced concerns about increasing instances of problems and mistakes,” Foxx said.

Congress mandated the use of the Direct Loan Program for all federal student loans as part of the federal Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act. Beginning in July 2010, all colleges and universities moved to the new program in order to streamline the loan process.

School administrators complained that the Direct Loan Program’s website is not user friendly enough, causing students to unknowingly fill out unnecessary forms.

Kennesaw State University financial aid director Ron Day testified that although his school supported the program, the transition was bumpy. The national loan computer system took weeks to provide students with information, as opposed to private loan companies’ typical turnaround of just a few days.

“With dozens of other servicers scheduled to come online in the coming months, we as a community are extremely concerned about how students are to keep up with the various processes and procedures,” Day testified.
He said the transition was confusing and very difficult for schools, but added that no students were turned away from receiving federal student aid during the process.

Runcie insisted during his testimony that the transition was a success, awarding $102.2 billion in Direct Loans to 11.5 million students during the most recent academic year.

Witnesses agreed the program wasn’t a failure, and that its problems fell short of justifying a repeal. School officials, however, offered the Department of Education a list of suggestions for increasing efficiency in the future.