Tech success: Pearson scores an A for effort

Online student loan system earns a high grade

IT Solutions in action

Project: Web-based system for applying for student aid

Agency:Education Department

Partners:Pearson Government Solutions Inc., Arlington, Va., and Akamai Technologies Inc., Cambridge, Mass.

Goal:Speed the process of applying for student aid, and ensure the accuracy of data the department collects about applicants.

Obstacles:
The system attracts huge volumes of users, and institutional deadlines create usage spikes.

Solution:
The system continually undergoes performance testing, and Akamai's cache control eases some of the pressure on the system.

Payoff:Students get their application results faster, and the department has more accurate data to work with.

In its first months of operation, an Education Department effort that gives students and parents a way to apply for federal student aid online attracted 35,000 applications.

This year, the Web-based program likely will account for 11 million applications.

Established in 1997 ? five years before the 2002 enactment of the E-Government Act ? Education's Free Application for Federal Student Aid program, called FAFSA on the Web, has become a model for Web-based interaction with the federal government.

Students can complete online a pre-application for financial aid to see if they are eligible for any federal student aid on an annual basis.

"Before 1997, the only way to do that was using a paper form," said Pat Struve of Pearson Government Solutions Inc., the systems integrator that helped build FAFSA.

Ten million students using the Web application comprise about 85 percent of all who apply for federal aid. Fewer than 2 million students use the paper-based system.

One of the biggest challenges for the Education Department has been ensuring that the Web site can keep up with an increasing volume of users, said Jeanne Saunders, federal student aid integration team leader at the Education Department.

"Our volume isn't steady over time; the system is cyclical," Saunders said. "It's about a 22-month cycle, but the heaviest time falls in the February and March timeframe."

It's the deadlines set by universities and state governments that drive the peaks in demand, said Jennifer Douglas, a general manager at the Education Department for Student Aid Awareness and Applicant Services. During one four-day period, the system handled more than 600,000 applicants, Douglas said.

That volume led to occasional degradation of the system, Saunders said. To combat the problem, officials focused on technology issues such as performance testing and ensuring that all systems were configured properly, she said.

Additionally, Akamai Technologies Inc. was brought in for its Advanced Cache Control. Without interfering with logging or tracking the Web site, the Key Customization Akamai product links, but separately caches, a single copy of Web site content and multiple individual users' data.

"It caches the static content of the Web pages, which has been a big relief," Saunders said. "We have something like 13,000 to 15,000 servers out there that are helped by caching some of the data, so you don't always have to come back to the main host of the site each time you need data."

One of the biggest payoffs of FAFSA on the Web has been the system's ability to collect accurate data on the people applying for aid, Pearson's Struve said.

"We do a lot of cross-referencing and cross-editing, so that we feel the data they submit is clean and good," Struve said, which results in applicants getting their financial aid faster

For example, if a student checks off that he is married but states the size of his family is one, the system catches the inconsistency. Those edits exist all the way through the application, even performing cross comparisons from previous years.

The main benefit for students is that they get their results faster than ever before. If someone files a paper application, results can take seven to 10 days.

With FAFSA, they get results within 72 hours, and often in as little as 24 hours, Struve said.

The program has been so successful that the New York State Higher Education Services Corp. has modeled its Web-based tuition assistance program on the Education Department's program.

Now, when students living in New York complete a FAFSA on the Web application, they are automatically asked if they would like to apply for the state's Tuition Assistance Program.

"If they say yes, then we take them into that TAP application directly," Struve said. "We transfer all of the information that they provided on FAFSA on the Web, so it automatically goes to the state system. Then the student just has to complete a few remaining fields."

If you have an innovative solution recently installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Doug Beizer at dbeizer@postnewsweektech.com.

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