Education mismanagement

A recent General Accounting Office report found that the Education Department is disbursing millions of dollars' worth of Pell Grants to older, ineligible students.

Pell Grants are designed to provide financial assistance to undergraduate students who are pursuing a degree and have demonstrated financial need. Grants ranged from $400 to $3,300 in fiscal 2000, and the average award was $2,057. Colleges determine the amount of the grant based on the student's expected family contribution, cost of attendance and enrollment status. If the expected family contribution exceeds $3,550, the student isn't eligible for a Pell Grant.

GAO reviewed colleges that had disproportionately high numbers of older students. Guess what? They found four colleges that disbursed as much as $3.4 million in Pell Grants to ineligible 50-year-old students. These students were ineligible because their primary course of study was English as a second language, and they were not seeking a degree.

GAO also identified an additional 708 colleges that disbursed $4.5 million in Pell Grants to students 70 years old or older. GAO chose this age because it did not expect large numbers of older students to be enrolled in degree programs and eligible for student aid. That qualifies for the understatement of the year. Makes you wonder why the guys at Education didn't pick up on that!

Clearly, this grant program is intended for young college students who are supported by their parents. How many 70-year-olds do you know who attend college and receive parental support? GAO uncovered this disgraceful state of affairs by evaluating the controls that existed within Education's Grant Administration and Payment System (GAPS). A more appropriate name would be GASP. An edit check would have likely picked up on the improper payments.

It's not that I'm picking on the Education Department, but GAO officials testified April 3 at a congressional subcommittee hearing that Education's systems have four broad categories of weak internal controls: poor segregation of duties, lack of supervisory review, inadequate audit trails and inadequate computer-system application controls.

Following that hearing, the department established a "management improvement team," consisting of eight senior managers, to address its serious management problems. Why didn't the team detect such an obvious problem? How many managers have been fired or demoted? It gets worse. Based on the results of GAO's analysis, Education decided to institute a new edit check for students 85 years old or older beginning with the 2002-2003 academic year. If the birth date on a student's Pell Grant application indicates the student is 85 years of age or older, Education will forward the information to the school for follow-up.

GAO said this age check isn't any good because it is too limiting. Now, there's a mastery of the obvious.

Makes me so happy sometimes to be a retired fed.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at miltzall@starpower.net.

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