Ed Dept gave too much relief funding to some colleges, watchdog finds

by Joseph K. Clark


Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education mistakenly provided too much federal coronavirus relief money to some colleges that received funding, a government watchdog agency found.
  • The Government Accountability Office reviewed 4,764 colleges that received the funds and estimated more than 5% of them, or 262 schools, got more funding than they should have been allocated.
  • GAO officials discovered three instances among schools they reviewed in which institutions received more funding than was allocated. This excess funding totaled $20 million.

Dive Insight:

In July, the GAO evaluated the department’s effort to distribute more than $76 billion in higher education relief funding Congress approved in three major aid packages. This money was earmarked for colleges to help defray pandemic-related costs and assist students the health crisis had disadvantaged.

The department’s Office of Postsecondary Education is charged with dispensing the aid funding. It normally distributes about $2 billion in grants annually, according to the GAO. But as of the end of May, it had sent out about $66 billion in relief dollars, 33 times the typical amount.

The office used existing staff to fulfill these extra duties, but the volume of funding and the urgent need to get it to colleges “increased the risk of payment errors,” the GAO said.

GAO officials tested the office’s procedures for processing and approving grants and found it didn’t have the necessary ones in place to identify potential mistakes. They found the three errors, which the office corrected after being identified.

The GAO called for the Education Department to develop procedures for conducting regular reviews of how it processes and distributes federal grants.

The department agreed with the recommendation and “already established and will continue to enhance its procedures for quality control of grant awards,” according to the GAO’s report.

A department spokesperson referred Higher Ed Dive to a written response Michelle Asha Cooper, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, gave to the GAO. Cooper wrote that since January 2021, the office has “significantly enhanced previously established quality control protocols.”

In September 2020, it established an Emergency Response Unit, which is dedicated to administering relief funding, and it has continued to staff the unit over the last few months with employees trained in the department’s grant administration processes, Cooper wrote. She wrote the GAO identified “a very small percentage of errors regarding obligations, mostly in the early days” of awarding the money.


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