The U.S. Education Department has been a little bit busy in the six weeks since President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan took office. You know, with little things, like figuring out how to distribute $100 billion in stimulus funds to states and schools, crafting the 2010 education budget, and proposing overhauls of the federal student loan system and of several major financial aid programs.
Amid those big-ticket, high-octane initiatives, revamping the URL's of the department's various Web sites to help would-be financial aid applicants find the information they need may seem like an afterthought. But with Duncan constantly telling his employees that the agency must focus its attention on doing "what's right for the kids," according to those who work around him, the changes were actually a significant, if small, priority.
In fact, they were flagged on this Web site last summer by one policy expert who has gone on to become a prominent (if temporary) member of the Obama/Duncan administration official. In an essay on Inside Higher Ed, Robert Shireman, then head of the Institute for College Access and Success and now a consultant to Duncan, encouraged then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to take on the URL issue as something productive she could get done in her final six months in office.
Students or parents looking for information who typed in "education.gov" instead of the department's real Web address, www.ed.gov, he noted, ended up getting either an error message or a page pointing people to commercial and other sites about education. (And they'd be logical to think education.gov was the right address, he said, since the Justice Department can be found at justice.gov, the Labor Department at labor.gov, etc.) Similarly, Shireman wrote, students looking for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and thinking that it might be found at the logical Web site "fafsa.gov," instead ended up with "sponsored search results from those unscrupulous companies." (The actual site: http://www.fafsa.ed.gov.)
So at Shireman's initiation, department officials filed the appropriate paperwork with the government's General Services Administration, did the technical handiwork necessary to ensure that the URL's in question forward to the appropriate department Web pages, and voilà, the financial aid system is just a little user-friendlier than it was last week. Typing in education.gov now takes you to the department's home page at www.ed.gov; studentloans.gov takes you to the department's financial aid help page.
"Little things like this are big for consumers, for students, and it’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re in government," says Shireman. "When someone tries to find the FAFSA on the Web and gets detoured off to a paid financial aid preparation site, that’s one American whose money we’re wasting.
"You can have a great big Pell Grant Program," he adds, "but if we're making it hard rather than easy for students to find out about it, we're not doing things right, as Secretary Duncan keeps telling us."