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(2) the school complies with any applicable State approval or licensure requirements; and (3) the State has a process to review and appropriately act on complaints concerning a school and Final Audit Report ED-OIG/A07L0001 Page 9 of 83 enforces applicable State laws. If not authorized by a State, a school may be authorized by the Federal government or an Indian tribe, or it may be exempt from State authorization as a religious school under State law (34 C.F.R. § 600.9(a) and (b)). A separate State authorization provision, 34 C.F.R. § 600.9(c), was invalidated by a court on procedural grounds. That provision would have required a school offering distance education to students in a State in which the school is not physically located to comply with any authorization requirement established by that State. States may have their own authorization standards that go beyond the requirements established in Federal regulations.
Schools Each school participating in the Title IV programs is responsible for complying with all standards established by its accrediting agencies and the States in which it is authorized. In addition, each school is responsible for ensuring that it complies with all applicable Title IV requirements.
A school must do the following to comply with Title IV requirements that present unique
challenges for schools offering distance education:
• require selected applicants to verify their identity as part of the student aid verification process (Dear Colleague Letter GEN-12-11, July 17, 2012);
• establish a process, acceptable to its accrediting agency, to verify that the person who registers in a distance education course or program is the same person who participates in and completes the course or program and receives the academic credit (34 C.F.R. § 602.17(g));
• determine the withdrawal date for a student who withdraws from the school (34 C.F.R. § 668.22(b) and (c));
• ensure that, when determining a withdrawal date or whether a student has begun attendance, it adheres to the definition of academic attendance and attendance at an academically related activity (34 C.F.R. § 668.22(l)(7), effective July 1, 2011;
34 C.F.R. § 668.21);
• resolve Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR) codes flagging students with unusual enrollment histories in accordance with Dear Colleague Letter GEN-13-09 (March 8, 2013); and
• develop and follow procedures to evaluate the validity of a student’s high school completion if the school or the Secretary has reason to believe that the high school diploma is not valid or was not obtained from an entity that provides secondary education (34 C.F.R. § 668.16(p), effective July 1, 2011).
In addition, the Department specified by regulation that evidence of a student logging in to an online class is not sufficient evidence by itself to demonstrate academic attendance by the student (34 C.F.R. § 668.22(l)(7)(i)(B)(3), effective July 1, 2011; 75 Federal Register 66898October 29, 2010). In promulgating this regulation, the Department rejected a comment Final Audit Report ED-OIG/A07L0001 Page 10 of 83 that it was requiring documentation beyond that required in the past and indicated that the regulation was consistent with guidance provided to schools about the requirements of existing law.
Schools Reviewed As Part of This Audit For this audit, we selected two schools from each of four categories: 4–year public, 2–year public, private nonprofit, and proprietary. During our visit to each school, we reviewed records and assessed the school’s compliance with selected Title IV requirements related to distance education, including those described above that were in effect for the award year that we reviewed, for students who were enrolled solely in distance education courses during award year 2010–2011 (July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011).
Table 1 shows the growth of recipients enrolled solely in distance education during award years 2008–2009, 2009–2010, and 2010–2011 at the schools we visited. 6 Table 1 also shows the amount of Title IV funds disbursed to all recipients for each of the 3 award years. 7 During award year 2010–2011, these eight schools disbursed more than $7.6 billion in Title IV funds.
Risks Inherent in the Distance Education Environment Distance education is the fastest growing segment of higher education. It creates unique oversight challenges and increases the risk of school noncompliance with the law and regulations. Distance education also creates new opportunities for defrauding and abusing the Title IV programs. It also has increased demand on the resources of the Department and the OIG. Distance education programs have been a major focus of OIG audits and investigations because of their high susceptibility to fraud, abuse, and noncompliance.
• On September 26, 2011, the OIG issued an Investigative Program Advisory Report (IPAR), “Distance Education Fraud Rings,” (ED-OIG/L42L0001) to OPE and FSA.
The purpose of the IPAR was to alert Department officials to a serious vulnerability in distance education programs. Conclusions presented in the IPAR were based on past cases involving numerous individuals who conspired to defraud the Title IV programs through distance education.
Among other actions, OIG recommended that the Department (1) change the regulations to require schools that enroll students exclusively in distance education programs to confirm student identity; (2) designate identity, high school graduation status, and statement of educational purpose as information required to be verified pursuant to the verification of student aid application information requirements;
(3) revise the Department’s Central Processing System and the National Student Loan Data System to identify participants who repeatedly enroll and withdraw;
(4) implement controls in the Department’s personal identification number delivery system to identify and prevent multiple numbers issued to the same email address without confirmation of identity; 8 and (5) issue a Dear Colleague Letter to alert schools about distance education fraud rings. The Department completed a corrective action plan, issued the recommended Dear Colleague Letter, and put in place a number of procedures to address these recommendations.
• Since 2007, the OIG has issued 10 audit reports specific to the distance education environment (see Appendix A). Our work identified instances of noncompliance by schools offering distance education programs. The noncompliance included ineligible students receiving Title IV funds, improper disbursements to students who never started classes, excessive credit balances held by schools, use of incorrect last dates of attendance, incorrect determination of student attendance, lack of documentation to show academic attendance, correspondence programs being considered distance education programs, and unreliable data.
• The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report, “Higher Education: Use of New Data Could Help Improve Oversight of Distance Education,” November 2011, to Congress. GAO’s work focused on four areas: (1) the characteristics of distance education, (2) the characteristics of students participating in distance education, (3) how the quality of distance education is being assessed, and (4) how the Department monitors distance education in its stewardship of Federal student aid funds. GAO recommended that the Department develop a plan on how to use data being collected and to provide input on what data to collect. GAO reported that such information should help to improve the Department’s oversight and monitoring of Title IV funds.
• The Deputy Under Secretary asked FSA and the OIG to initiate a special project to identify schools that participate in the Title IV programs and had high risks of noncompliance with program requirements. FSA and OIG collaborated on the “FSA/OIG Risk Project for Schools Participating in the Title IV Programs” to (1) obtain a shared understanding of actual and potential abuses, (2) identify risk indicators that the Department might use to target schools with a high risk of noncompliance with requirements, and (3) produce a list of high-risk schools based on those risk indicators. FSA and OIG agreed to make distance education the focus of the project because the existing requirements did not clearly address distance education’s unique delivery method or the significant increase in the number of students enrolled in distance education. FSA and OIG identified 27 schools as having a high risk for noncompliance with the Title IV requirements. As a result of the project, FSA conducted program reviews of 25 schools and OIG conducted audits of 2 schools. The two audits identified multiple instances of noncompliance with Title IV requirements specific to distance education.
OIG reports have shown that Title IV funds delivered to students enrolled in programs offered through distance education are susceptible to fraud and abuse. OIG reports have also shown school noncompliance with the Title IV requirements and waste in setting the amount of awards to students. Key risk areas include the verification of a student’s identity, determination of a student’s academic attendance, and the calculation of cost of attendance for students enrolled in distance education programs.
Final Audit Report ED-OIG/A07L0001 Page 13 of 83
Did the Department Adapt 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 some distance education issues associated with verification of a student’s identity, attendance, and fraud. However, the Department could do more to address the risks of fraud, abuse, and waste in the distance education environment without hurting the efficient and effective delivery of Title IV funds to eligible students. Specifically, the Department should take
the following actions:
1. Develop regulations that require schools to verify the identity of all distance education students at the time of enrollment.
2. Amend the regulations to require more frequent disbursements of Title IV funds. The disbursements should coincide with the timing of institutional charges and other expenses, such as child or dependent care expenses and monthly Internet fees.
3. Amend the regulations expressly to apply the definition of attendance in 34 C.F.R.
§ 668.22(l)(7) to the regulations for returning Title IV funds for students who do not begin attendance.
4. Issue guidance that clearly explains what is considered acceptable evidence of a distance education student’s academic attendance.
5. Work with Congress to revise the HEA so that schools are required to develop cost of attendance budgets applicable to the student’s actual educational needs and not include costs that are unnecessary to complete the student’s program of study.
By addressing these areas, the Department will have greater assurance that Title IV funds are used for the intended purpose—education—and that the interests of taxpayers are protected.
Risk Mitigation Steps That the Department Has Already Taken The Department has taken steps to mitigate the risks related to a school (1) inadequately verifying a student’s identity, (2) improperly determining whether a student had academic attendance, and (3) having fraud committed against its distance education programs. The Department amended existing regulations or established new regulations, effective July 1, 2010, that apply to accrediting agencies and the distance education environment (74 Federal Register 55426, October 27, 2009).
Final Audit Report ED-OIG/A07L0001 Page 14 of 83 Effective July 1, 2010, accrediting agencies must
• ensure that the individuals conducting onsite evaluations are competent, knowledgeable, and trained by the agency on their responsibilities appropriate for their roles, including their responsibilities regarding distance education (34 C.F.R.
• evaluate the quality of education offered through distance education (34 C.F.R.
• ensure that schools have a process in place to verify that the student who registers in a distance education course or program is the same student who participates in and completes the course or program and receives the academic credit (34 C.F.R.
§ 602.17); and
• monitor the growth of programs at schools that experience significant growth in enrollment (34 C.F.R. § 602.19).
In addition, the Department
• revised the regulations at 34 C.F.R. § 668.22(l)(7)(i)(B)(3), effective July 1, 2011, to make explicit that, when determining the withdrawal date for a student, documenting that a student logged in to an online class is not sufficient by itself to demonstrate academic attendance by the student. In promulgating this regulation, the Department rejected a comment that it was requiring documentation beyond that required in the past and indicated that the regulation was consistent with guidance provided to schools about the requirements of existing law (75 Federal Register 66898-66899, October 29, 2010);
• revised regulations, effective July 1, 2011, to include a more detailed definition of academic attendance for purposes of determining a student’s withdrawal date from school (34 C.F.R. § 668.22(l)(7)); and
• provided in 34 C.F.R. § 668.16(p), effective July 1, 2011, that schools must develop and follow procedures to evaluate the validity of a student’s high school completion if the school or the Secretary has reason to believe that the high school diploma is not valid or was not obtained from an entity that provides secondary education.
The Department also revised its own processes for confirming a student’s identity and added verification requirements for schools. The Department added a new Institutional Student Information Report (ISIR) flag code that requires schools to verify a student’s enrollment history. Plus, the Department added three new items for schools to verify when a student’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is selected for verification: the student’s high school completion, identity, and statement of educational purpose.