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«FINAL AUDIT REPORT ED-OIG/A07L0001 February 2014 Our mission is to promote the U.S. Department of Education efficiency, effectiveness, and Office of ...»

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Title IV of the Higher Education Act Programs:

Additional Safeguards Are Needed to Help Mitigate the Risks That

Are Unique to the Distance Education Environment



February 2014

Our mission is to promote the U.S. Department of Education

efficiency, effectiveness, and Office of Inspector General

integrity of the Department’s programs and operations


Statements that managerial practices need improvements, as well as other conclusions and recommendations in this report, represent the opinions of the Office of Inspector General. Determinations of corrective action to be taken will be made by the appropriate Department of Education officials.

In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. § 552), reports issued by the Office of Inspector General are available to members of the press and general public to the extent information contained therein is not subject to exemptions in the Act.




February 21, 2014 TO: Jamienne S. Studley Acting Under Secretary FROM: Patrick J. Howard /s/ Assistant Inspector General for Audit Services SUBJECT: Final Audit Report Title IV of the Higher Education Act Programs: Additional Safeguards Are Needed to Help Mitigate the Risks That Are Unique to the Distance Education Environment Control Number ED-OIG/A07L0001 Attached is the subject final audit report that covers the results of our audit of the Department’s management of risks to the Title IV Higher Education Act programs that are unique to the distance education environment. We received your office’s comments agreeing in principle with the findings and agreeing with all but one of the recommendations in our draft audit report. We considered the comments and made changes where appropriate when preparing this final audit report.

Corrective actions proposed (resolution phase) and implemented (closure phase) by the Department will be monitored and tracked through the Department’s Audit Accountability and Resolution Tracking System (AARTS). Department policy requires that you develop a final corrective action plan (CAP) for our review in AARTS within 30 days of the issuance of this final audit report. The CAP should set forth the specific action items, and targeted completion dates, necessary to implement final corrective actions on the findings and recommendations contained in this final audit report.

In accordance with the Inspector General Act of 1978, as amended, the Office of Inspector General is required to report to Congress twice a year on the audits that remain unresolved after 6 months from the date of issuance.

In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. § 552), reports issued by the Office of Inspector General are available to members of the press and general public to the extent information contained therein is not subject to exemptions in the Act.

We appreciate the cooperation given us during this audit. If you have any questions, please call me at (202) 245-6900 or Gary D. Whitman, Regional Inspector General for Audit, at (312) 730-1620.

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Finding No. 1 – Regulations Related to Verifying Student Identity and Disbursing Title IV Funds Should Be Strengthened

Finding No. 2 – Current Regulations Defining Attendance at an Academically Related Activity Should Also Apply to Student Eligibility and Disbursement Requirements

Finding No. 3 – Cost of Attendance Components for Distance Education Students Should Be Revised

Finding No. 4 – FSA Could Improve Its Monitoring of Schools’ Compliance by Targeting Its Reviews on High-Risk Areas

Finding No. 5 – More Useful Data on Distance Education Is Needed to Adequately Assess Risk and Direct Monitoring Efforts



Appendix A: OIG Issued Reports on Audits of Schools Offering Distance Education Programs

Appendix B: Introduction of Information on Selected Schools

Appendix C: The Pennsylvania State University

Appendix D: Kent State University

Appendix E: Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana

Appendix F: Valencia College

Appendix G: Liberty University

Appendix H: Western Governors University

Appendix I: ITT Technical Institute

Appendix J: University of Phoenix

Appendix K: Department’s Comments on the Draft Audit Report

Acronyms, Abbreviations, and Short Forms Used in this Report

–  –  –

The objectives of this audit were to determine whether (1) the U.S. Department of Education (Department) adapted the program requirements and guidance for the Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (Title IV), programs to mitigate the unique risks inherent in the distance education environment and (2) the Department, accrediting agencies, and State agencies adequately monitored schools to provide assurance of their compliance with the Title IV requirements unique to the distance education environment.

As part of this audit, we interviewed officials from and reviewed the records of the Department’s Office of Postsecondary Education and Federal Student Aid (FSA), nine accrediting agencies, and eight schools. We also asked for information from nine States and received information from five. The records that we reviewed covered July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2011. 1 For the purpose of this report, a school means an entity that meets the statutory definition of an institution of higher education, a proprietary institution of higher education, or a postsecondary vocational institution and participates in the Title IV programs. Distance education means education that uses certain technologies to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the student and the instructor.

Distance education is the fastest growing segment of higher education and creates unique oversight challenges and increases the risk of school noncompliance with the law and regulations. Distance education also creates new opportunities for fraud, abuse, and waste in the Title IV programs. Past Office of Inspector General audits, investigations, and special projects have shown instances of problems related to verifying student identity, determining attendance, and determining cost of attendance. These problems are increasing as schools deliver more programs through distance education and more students enroll in programs offered entirely through distance education.

Did the Department Adapt the Title IV Requirements and Guidance to Mitigate the Unique Risks Inherent in the Distance Education Environment?

The Department issued regulations and provided guidance to accrediting agencies and schools to address distance education issues associated with verification of student identity, attendance, and fraud. However, the regulations and guidance as they relate to verifying the identity of distance education students and the definition of attendance do not sufficiently mitigate the risks of fraud, abuse, and noncompliance.

• Current regulations require schools to use some type of method, such as a secure login and passcode, to ensure that the student who registers in a distance education The information presented in this report should not be projected to the universe of all accrediting agencies, States, and schools involved with the Title IV programs during the audit period because we did not use statistical sampling methods to select entities included in this audit.

Final Audit Report ED-OIG/A07L0001 Page 2 of 83 course or program is the same person who participates in and completes the course or program and receives the academic credit. The reliability of logins and passcodes depends on the processes that schools use to verify identity before issuing the passcodes and on students’ care in safekeeping such credentials. A secure login and passcode ensure only that someone logging in to a course is using the same login and passcode assigned to the person who enrolled. A secure login and passcode do not ensure that the person is enrolling under a valid name and intends to obtain an education. The regulations should be clarified and strengthened so that schools are required to use current best practices in identity verification methods to better mitigate the risk of student identity fraud.

• Current regulations are not sufficient to mitigate the risk of Title IV funds being paid to students who fraudulently enroll and do not intend to complete a course or program. The Department could reduce the likelihood of fraud schemes being successful by revising the regulations and requiring schools to use smaller, more frequent disbursements.

• The definition of attendance currently is mentioned only in the regulatory provision regarding the treatment of Title IV funds for students who withdraw from school.

However, the proper determination of attendance also affects a student’s entitlement to receive or retain initial disbursements, as well as to receive or retain subsequent disbursements of Title IV funds. The Department should develop a general regulatory definition of attendance that applies consistently to all attendance-based requirements for the Title IV programs. The regulations and any related guidance also should clearly distinguish between requirements applicable to distance education and requirements applicable to traditional, campus-based education.

In addition, the cost components included in students’ cost of attendance budgets might not accurately reflect students’ actual costs of attendance. Cost of attendance budgets should reflect the costs associated with each student’s actual educational needs and not include costs that are unnecessary to complete his or her program of study. The Department should work with Congress to review components of cost of attendance budgets and ensure that the components included fit the student’s educational needs.

Did the Department, Accrediting Agencies, and State Agencies Adequately Oversee Schools to Provide Assurances of Compliance With the Title IV Requirements?

Collectively, the oversight provided by the Department, accrediting agencies, and States has not been adequate to mitigate the risk of schools not complying with the requirements that are unique to the distance education environment. For the purposes of this audit, we identified the following requirements that present unique compliance challenges for schools offering distance


–  –  –

Accrediting agencies and States have minimal or nonexistent responsibility to monitor a school’s compliance with the Title IV requirements. An accrediting agency’s role is to monitor a school’s academic quality, while a State’s role is to authorize and license schools. Therefore, the Department is the entity responsible for ensuring that schools comply with Title IV law and regulations.

FSA’s monitoring of schools’ compliance with the Title IV requirements could be improved through enhanced targeting of its monitoring reviews on the highest risk areas. Such improvements would better position FSA to identify the issues that we found during our reviews of schools and to identify other issues unique to the distance education environment.

In addition, although both Office of Postsecondary Education and FSA officials acknowledge that high-risk areas exist in the distance education environment, the Department has not been collecting data and other information that could help it identify additional risks unique to distance education. Based on our analysis of the data that we received from the eight schools that participated in this audit, schools disbursed a significant amount of Title IV funds to students who did not earn any credits during a payment period. The 8 schools disbursed nearly $222 million to more than 42,000 distance education students who did not earn any credits during a payment period. Collecting and analyzing sufficient and appropriate data would help the Department appropriately address risks, proactively adapt policies to address those risks, and better target its school compliance monitoring.

We provided a draft of this report to the Department for comment. The Department agreed, in principle, that additional safeguards and risk assessment strategies are needed to mitigate the unique risks associated with distance education. In addition, the Department agreed with all but one of our recommendations. The Department partially agreed with Recommendation 3.2, stating that, while schools have the authority to use professional judgment to adjust the cost of attendance, the law limits such discretion to be exercised on a case-by-case basis, rather than across an entire category or class of students. We summarize the Department’s comments at the end of each finding and include its written response as Appendix K.

–  –  –

Distance education is the fastest growing segment of higher education. The purpose of this report is to raise awareness of the issues unique to the distance education environment and to recommend actions needed to mitigate the risks associated with distance education.

The Department provides more than $150 billion dollars each year in the form of Federal grants, loans, and work-study funds to more than 15 million students paying for college or career school.

More than 6,000 schools participate in the Title IV programs. Title IV programs are large, complex, and inherently risky because of their design, reliance on numerous entities for administration and oversight, the nature of the student population, and the changes in educational delivery methods, such as distance education.

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