Education looks for IT answers

Poor management of information technology systems has put billions of student-loan dollars at stake at the Education Department which has systems that appeared on the General Accounting Office's "high-risk" list.

Computer systems for the student-aid programs are crucial to the department's stability because they provide information on student-loan eligibility loan-default history payment schedules and borrowers' addresses all of which allow the department to make financially sound loans and collect monthly payments regularly said Jay Eglin assistant director of higher-education issues for GAO.

Picture Imperfect

But the systems are not integrated making it nearly impossible to get a quick and complete picture of a borrower's history. If applicant information contained in Education systems or systems run by a third party is inaccurate outdated or overlooked loans might end up being made to students who are unable to repay.

"The department...seems to lack a sound integrated information technology architecture or strategy to manage its portfolio of information systems supporting student financial aid program outlays " GAO concluded.

At risk are billions of dollars. Last year student loans totaled nearly $32 billion said Leo Kornfeld Education's acting chief information officer who resigned this month to return to the private sector.Education's systems have emerged as stovepiped systems that are not integrated and are largely dependent on mainframes and each system has its own operating staff.

History is to blame according to Kornfeld. "One of the problems at the Department of Education...is that these different [loan] programs and processes developed not all at one time " he said which caused each system to develop its own architecture and support staff.

About a year ago Kornfeld who became acting CIO in July helped usher in a special streamlining and integration project called Project Easy Access for Students and Institutions. EASI seeks to integrate data systems for Education's student financial aid programs. But the GAO report noted that the project had "a tentative start" and activity in the project has waned in recent months.

Still Kornfeld has had some success including a telecommunications project that makes sure borrowers who call in about their loans do not get put on hold or get a busy signal. Kornfeld likes to think IT improvements during his tenure have helped save the department money. "The default rate is very low (11.2 percent last year) and it's getting lower " Kornfeld said.

A lot of IT cleaning up remains to be done however. "We're hoping to develop the overall strategy the information technology strategy in about six months " he said with another two to three years to put the strategy in place.

Kornfeld said the strategy will likely involve changing the nature of procurements as they come up for renewal with the department opting to award contracts for integrating systems and databases rather than awarding contracts for maintenance of old stovepiped systems. "I think when the department has its systems integrated and refined...I think the department will save millions " he said. "We already spend hundreds of millions of dollars [to operate these systems].

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