A lesson in management

Education Department officials charged with keeping track of federal government loans distributed by hundreds of colleges to thousands of students are breathing a little easier these days.

Since April, the managers who work with colleges that participate in the Direct Loan Program have been using a Web-based tool that enables them to monitor the colleges' balance sheets in real time. That in turn helps them avoid potential problems before they develop.

The client account managers, who serve as advocates for colleges active in the Direct Loan Program, are using Information Builders Inc.'s WebFocus reporting suite to provide instant snapshots of colleges' cash balances and loan disbursements to students.

The system replaces a procedure that only provided client account managers with scattered college-reported data that was at least 30 days old by the time it reached them. With direct access to the Office of Student Financial Assistance Programs' Loan Origination System production and archive database, WebFocus provides client account managers with up-to-date data on demand.

"We have developed a much easier way to compare if a school has reported their disbursements," said Mike Flynn, implementation manager for Information Builders. "We've helped put together a reporting system that pulls everything together in one place."

That should enable client account managers to pinpoint and correct college loan balance discrepancies much sooner, said Dwight Vigna, vice president of federal systems for Electronic Data Systems Inc., which operates OSFAP's Loan Origination Center and chose Information Builders to develop the solution.

With the number and size of loans fluctuating constantly, the most difficult procedure for colleges that offer direct loans is reconciling the money they've given to students and the money they've received from the government, Vigna said.

"[The new system] allows the client account managers to be able to be pro.active in seeing if any school is having a problem with that process," he said.

Previous Education inspector general reports have faulted the department's efforts to monitor the Direct Loan Program and its ability to protect its assets and ensure data integrity, and OSFAP remains on the General Accounting Office's list of high-risk government programs. The Management Improvement Team formed by new Secretary Rod Paige in April is charged with getting OSFAP off that list and improving overall financial management at the department (see box).

WebFocus fulfills the requirements of a new reporting system that the client account managers had asked for in a December 1999 white paper, Vigna said. After Information Builders was selected to develop it, requirements were laid out last November, and the system went live in April.

Previously, client account managers had to wait until after colleges' monthly reports were compiled at the Loan Origination Center to see how they were faring. "It was too cumbersome and too old for them to be pro.active," Vigna said.

Using WebFocus, a client account manager can build a detailed report on colleges' direct loan balances at any time, delivered via the World Wide Web. "[The managers] love it," Vigna said. "They never thought they could get this data this quickly."

When a report is delivered, an initial summary screen shows whether a college is complying with reporting requirements. If not, account managers can drill down into more detailed cash balance sheets and quickly see where a college is having problems balancing the books, Flynn said.


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