Sunday, March 20, 2011

No FAFSA for FOSS Users

I'm a student in my last semester of undergraduate school currently. I've written twice now about various pieces of online software that restrict your freedom to use the operating system of your choice to access them. My girlfriend is also a student and as many of you may know - college is expensive. This weekend she went to fill out her FAFSA application online, for those of you unfamiliar "FAFSA" stands for "free application for federal student aide", and was annoyed when she found out she couldn't!

You might share in my shock when I found out that this free application cannot be filled out from a free operating system. When clicking the "start here" button on the FAFSA main page from a Linux based operating system you are kindly redirected to the incompatible browsers page. Just like with blackboard "supported browsers" really means "supported browsers and operating systems". The FAFSA website supports:
  • Internet Explorer 6, 7, and 8
  • Firefox 3.5 and 3.6
  • Google Chrome 6 and 7
  • Opera 10.x
Now even though three of these browsers are cross platform, the only operating systems you are able to use with these browsers are Windows and OSX. The kicker at the end of all this? At the very bottom of the page there is a citing of standards compliance as the reason for certain browsers being redirected:

"For the past few years, every major Web browser released has been built around a set of open standards designated by the World Wide Web Consortium, a non-profit organization charged with overseeing the continuing development of the Web. What this means is that one piece of code now looks the same on every modern browser, whether it be Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera, or others. The majority of our users are using these modern browsers, so we can present content which is optimized for them. "

While that is all fine and dandy, last I checked browsers on Linux where not any less standards compliant than those on Windows or OSX. At the end of the day I guess this is just another example of a large organization ignoring the FOSS ecosystem. I wonder how much longer it is going to be that Linux users are going to have to deal with this sort of ignorance.

~Jeff Hoogland


  1. Thats just stupid.

    Firefox is the same on all platforms.

  2. They do it because there is no way for the government to control anything Open Source, which means that Linux is a big no no. So, even though they're saying it's about the browser, it's actually about the OS, and the fact that you're using one that they don't have their spyware in. And remember: just because I'm paranoid, that doesn't mean they're not out to get me.

  3. I complained formally to my university and cited some legal articles about "being inclusive" vs. the segregating reality that was promoted by using blackboard.

  4. It's strange because my university is pretty cool about open-source. Then again, this isn't the university — this is the federal government.
    a Linux Mint user since 2009 May 1

  5. Not sure what the problem was for your girlfriend, but I seem to be able to fill out the application on:

    Chrome 10.0.648.151
    OpenSuSE 11.4

  6. @Alexander:
    Seriously? You don't think it may have something to do with the inability to ensure every linux user has the same environment? Also, is it uncomfortable under that tinfoil hat?

  7. Just modify your User Agent and go about your FAFSA'ing

  8. This is not entirely correct. You'll get a warning that you're using an unsupported browser, but you can continue and complete the FAFSA with no problems.

  9. Absolutely not true, at least when I did it (and the last time was four or five years ago, now). They warn you that the browser is unsupported, but it works fine - I used Linux almost exclusively in college.

  10. Not getting an option to click past it here.


  11. I started school in fall of 2009, and used Ubuntu with Firefox to fill out the FAFSA. I remember the "unsupported browser" message, but filling the whole thing out worked fine that year, and again last year.

    It looks like they've changed their system recently, but I just tried starting a 2011/2012 form, and it's working just like normal.

    So, yes FAFSA for FOSS users. :D

  12. Doesn't work for me.

    Ubuntu 10.10
    Firefox 3.6.X
    Chrome 10.x

  13. Switch you user agent string to make the site think you're on Windows (

  14. I have filled out FAFSA with Firefox running on Ubuntu for the past 4 years with absolutely no problems. I also access Blackboard from my Linux box. I don't remember if I had to make any modifications to do so.

  15. I was able to complete the fafsa form on firefox running Ubuntu 10.10 64 bit.

  16. I tried the page using Firefox on PCLinux. I first got the unsupported browser message page. After changing the Firefox user agent to IE8, the registration page appeared without any warnings. Seems this IS about the OS, not the browser.

  17. Since they are a US Federal website, they should really comply with Section 508 of US federal law (i.e. everyone must be able to use your product/website regardless of their ability). This would also mean someone using Lynx via a braille terminal!

    Not to mention someone trying to fill out the application on a tablet/iPad.

  18. While changing your browser string works in the short-run in the long run it will just convince people they don't need to support the third most popular desktop operating system family.

  19. Jeff, as far as I can tell the javascript that determines the browser is the following

    3 * Functions to preload/swap images
    4 */
    6// detect browser capabilities
    7var capable = (document.getElementById && document.getElementsByTagName);
    8var color_faa = "#CC5407";
    9var color_student = "#007AA9";

  20. @tracyanne, No. That code is just testing to see whether the user's browser is capable of handling the specified DOM methods. And then it sets some variables that hold color hex codes...

  21. Switching the user agent is the wrong approach. (Certainly use it to get what you need done right now.) Everyone has to be very vocal with each elected official representing you. It is simple to find them and email them. You will get a canned response, but they read everything. Assure them you will do everything you can to get them defeated. They know very well that in a close election, every vote counts. Of course, if it's a runaway, at least you spoke up for yourself.

  22. It appears that once you get past the "unsupported browser" page by setting the User Agent to IE8, you can reset the User Agent identification back to the default without problems.

    At least, so I found with IceWeasel.

    More interestingly, the "good browser" list appears to be quite arbitrary, as "too old" (even 2.x) versions seem to work fine, too, once you get past the warning screen masquerading as IE8.

  23. to Anonymous March 22, 2011 9:51 AM

    The reason it continues to work is because a cookie has been set that allows it to continue once past the initial check, remove the cookie and it will once again test your browser and find it wanting.

  24. Jeff the following UserAgent string will work

    Mozilla/5.0 (X11; U; Linux x86_64; en-US; rv: Gecko/20100628 Ubuntu/10.04 (lucid) Firefox/3.6.6 GTB7.1

    Apparently Ubuntu is a supported Operating System, It is not yet listed on the website, but I am assured that it is a supported Operating System.

    This gets you into the application Form, it still displays an error message but you don't get redirected to the Incompatible Browser page.

  25. Sorry almost forgot. Here is a list of FF useragent strings some may be more helpful than others.

  26. This user agent string worked for me

    Mozilla/5.0 (X11; U; Linux x86_64; en-US; rv: Gecko/20100628 Ubuntu/10.04 (lucid) Firefox/3.6.6 GTB7.1

    Ubuntu is apparently a supported Operating System. It isn't in the list, but I am assured that it is supported.

  27. Don't change your settings. Change your leaders!

    I called both of my Senators. You should too. It is not acceptable to leave a government in place that forces you (or tries to force you) to purchase proprietary products in order to have access to YOUR government!

  28. For some strange reason my post a few minutes prior to the one at March 23, 2011 12:23 AM was deleted, it appeared then when I posted the follow it was gone.

    The official reason given for allowing only certain web browser/Operating System combinations is for Security reasons.

    Apparently, or so I was told, that Browser/OS combinations are added only slowly, is because it takes time to test Browsers and Operating System combinations. The upshot of this is that neither FF 4.0 nor IE9 on Windows will work as they have not yet been tested/not yet passed testing.

    I have also been informed that Ubuntu is accepted as a Operating System compatible with the FAFSA website. It is the ONLY Linux based Operating System that will access the form (I was not told if there is an arbitrary min or max version of Ubuntu). However the User Agent String I used (see my post at March 23, 2011 10:09 AM) did allow me to access the form, albeit with a incompatible browser message displayed on the page.

    I was unable to proceed further, for two reasons, 1/ I am not a US citizen (and therefore do not have a US social Security Number) and 2/ I don't want to register for the student Assistance anyway.

    I hope this helps. Maybe you jeff can dig a bit deeper,and contact the right people, or get an organisation like the Linux Foundation to interceed on behalf of Linux users, as while this reason for blocking operating systems like Linux, while allowing Windows, is clearly ridiculous, I do believe it is a genuine reason, and there is no grand conspiracy.

  29. tracyanne - for some reason blogger was flagging your longer posts as spam. I just personally removed all your shorter posts so there wouldn't be piles of duplicates.

    I have no doubt that it is purely ignorance and not some conspiracy that is keeping Linux from accessing that page - at the same time it does need to be resolved. I live state side and would love to do some digging, who did you contact to get the information you did?

    Thanks for rustling that up & reading,

  30. Jeff I spent some time using the online help. Basically I just kept at it until I came across a person who responded in a non robotic manner to my questions (which I honed along the way). This man then volunteered that Ubuntu is his the list of approved operating systems, but is not yet on the compatible Browsers/Operating Systems page.

    I was not able to go higher. Several of the Help desk people insisted I phone the help line and talk to some one. But what this really needs is an expose or some sort of pressure/assistance from a recognised/respected (by them) source.

    They appear to have a strange notion of security.

  31. At least now there is no need for Linux users to identify their Browser as a windows based Browser. By using a UserAgent string that identifies the Browser/OS as FF on Ubuntu at least now they get to see Linux users accessing the site. It's not perfect but it's a start.

  32. I have found out that the person responsible for this setting is Victor Woodhouse. Please write him a Snail-Mail letter explaining how wrong it is to attempt to force people to purchase a proprietary product in order to have access to their OWN government:

    Attn: Victor Woodhouse
    PO BOX 84
    Washington DC 20044

  33. There's been an open source government initiative for some years now and all Government websites should be standard compliant and accessible via open source systems.
    This should not happen. I've been using exclusively Linux for many years now and this is the first time I encounter this situation.
    How can we raise this issue?

  34. I was not able to access using the Ubuntu netbook OS and the user agent. Gotta go visit a friend with a mac or win system - I like what was said earlier don't redo your settings replace your leaders(often).

  35. Its bad to know that a student who needs the fafsa benefits could fulfill the fafsa application due to OS limitation,this information would help the further require fafsa.There is a good fafsa questions for the people who organize the fafsa forms.