Education schooled on IT controls

Weaknesses in Education Department information systems continue to carry the potential for fraud and abuse in loan and financial management programs, according to a General Accounting Office report released Jan. 17.

GAO, in one of its Performance and Accountability Series reports, said Education lacks the internal controls needed to "maintain the integrity" of its student loan and grant programs, which amount to about $50 billion a year. Part of the blame rests with the information technology the department has in place, according to the report.

"Continued weaknesses in information systems controls increase the risk of disruption in services and make Education's grant and loan data vulnerable to unauthorized access, inadvertent or deliberate misuse, fraudulent use, improper disclosure or destruction, all of which could occur without detection," the reports states.

GAO also found fault with information systems controls in Education's financial management procedures. The report pointed to the department's fiscal 1999 audit, in which auditors found vulnerabilities that could allow "unauthorized access to sensitive information and disruption in services."

Also, GAO determined that Education needs to improve its recovery plan to provide for continued operations in the event of a disaster.

The report also states that the department could improve performance by collaborating with other agencies. For instance, GAO has found that Education could access Internal Revenue Service databases to verify income claims made by students applying for loans.

"The two agencies are currently conducting two pilot projects to match Education and IRS data," according to the report. "If the pilots are successful and if IRS grants Education permission to receive summary taxpayer information for use in verifying data provided on loan applications, Education could use enhanced data sharing to make more timely and accurate eligibility determinations."

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