Last Day of Attendance: Audit Results Should Have You Check Your Aid Procedures

Just a hint…you may want to review your financial aid processes for distance education.

Thank you to Michael Jortberg from Acxiom for alerting me to a small item in this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education postings: Audit Finds Errors in Baker College’s Distance Education Attendance Records. As you may know, WCET has been following this issue with the help of Dow, Lohnes Government Strategies.  We have conducted a survey of members on this issue and issued a joint letter with ACUTA and UPCEA to the Department.Baker College Online logo

Over a several year period, the U.S. Department of Education has been reviewing the “last day of attendance” calculations for students who unofficially withdraw or drop-out of their online courses.  From a brief from Dow, Lohnes Government Relations on this issue:

“if the institution is not required to take attendance, as is the case with many collegiate institutions, the institution may either use the mid-point of the financial aid payment period as the effective withdrawal date or it may choose to document the student’s LDA in an ‘academically related activity.’”

In the findings from the U.S. Department of Education’s audit of the institution, Baker College (Michigan’s largest non-profit, independent college) was cited for:

  1. The College did not maintain records that were adequate to support its determination of student attendance during Award Year 2006-2007.
  2. The College incorrectly identified when distance education students began and ceased attendance.

As a result of the audit, Baker College will have to refund $9,790 in financial aid funds for a handful of errors found through the audit process.  They are asked to review the records of an additional 2,238 students and reimburse the U.S. Department of Education for any amounts that do not meet the standards laid out in this audit report.  Baker College is also asked to verify the first day of attendance for these students, which is new to me.  But, I’m not a financial aid person.

Now, an amount just under $10,000 does not sound like much.  Undoubtedly, this has already cost considerable staff time and will require more staff time to perform the reviews of the records of each of these students.  A large amount of additional reimbursements will probably ultimately be uncovered.

WCET is not in favor of sloppy procedures or defrauding the government.  We just want clarity in definitions.

The U.S. Department of Education cited Baker College for a lack of definitions in its findings including criticizing it because it “did not provide a definition of ‘academic posting’ to its instructors.”  Similarly, we would like to see clear definitions and guidelines provided by the Department on this issue. Colleges should not to have to wait for audits to see if their procedures are in compliance.

Our most recent letter to the Department concludes:

Given the importance of this matter for a great many institutions, we request that the Department define prospectively the documentation that our institutions may use to evidence LDA for online programs that would be effective beginning with the 20112012 award year. This would provide sufficient time for institutions to make any modifications to their systems and procedures to comply with the Department’s new definitions. We also request that the Department take no adverse action against any institution for its LDA calculation until the Department issues that definition.

Meanwhile, what should you do?

If you are a distance education or financial aid administrator, I’d read this audit report and ask myself, “Do our procedures meet the standards cited in these findings?”

Russell Poulin
Deputy Director
Research & Analysis
WCET

2 Comments

  1. Posted September 21, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink | Reply

    I thought I’d share the Baker College response to the OIG audit. Please let me know if you have any questions. Take care – Julia Teahen, President of Baker College Online————————————

    Mr. William J. Taggart
    Chief Operating Officer
    Federal Student Aid
    U.S. Department of Education
    Union Center Plaza, Room 112G1
    830 First Street, N.E.
    Washington, DC 20202

    Dear Mr. Taggart:

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the Final Audit Report, entitled Baker College’s Compliance with Selected Provisions of the Higher Education Act of 1965 and Corresponding Regulations. As a result of reviewing the Final Audit Report and consistent with our response dated November 6, 2009, Baker College still vigorously disputes the findings of the Office of Inspector General. Specifically, there are three areas of significant dispute; official withdrawals, unofficial withdrawals and the interpretation of “academic activity.”

    Unofficial Withdrawals
    Baker College has thoroughly searched for unofficial withdrawals from both the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 academic years based on procedures from the Department of Education School Participation Team and the audit that was conducted by them during the period from June 2008 through February 2009. The College satisfied any resultant liability with regard to unofficial withdrawals and the matter has been closed by the Department of Education. It should be restated that the College examined 100% of potential unofficial withdrawals based upon F grades for the referenced years as determined in conjunction with the Department.

    Official Withdrawals
    The College used an observed or recorded last date of attendance, either as reported by an instructor, student, or employee, when calculating refunds to Title IV aid in the case of official withdrawals. Baker College did not save online course documentation from Blackboard as documentation of the last date of attendance because Carina stores our official academic records. The College maintains Carina records, accounts receivable screens, R2T4 worksheets, FA files and academic files on all these students in compliance with published and well established regulations. This is where the College believes the OIG is using double standard as applied to online delivery as compared to traditional classroom delivery. Grades, student files, recorded attendance, and last dates of attendance as reported by students and instructors have long sufficed for validation of eligibility for Title IV funds. The Department of Education has not to date published any further regulations or guidelines to clarify different standards for online classes and it was not addressed in A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, published June 18, 2010 (75 FR 34806).

    What Constitutes Academic Activity
    Baker College firmly maintains that it is in compliance with regulation 34CFR668.22(c)(3) and will not restate our objection to the OIG’s interpretation.

    Furthermore and in particular, it appears that the majority of online deliverers use only student log-in to either the learning management system or into each enrolled course, as evidence of attendance. Student log-in and entry into the electronic classroom, is comparable to standards used in determining attendance in onground delivery.

    Baker College has gone above industry standards in determining online attendance, as outlined in the OIG Final Report (ED-OIG/A05I0012). Examples of acceptable academic activities are noted in a letter from the U.S. Department of Education to WCET: “Examples of acceptable academic activities that the Department has provided include participation in an online discussion and initiating contact with a faculty member to ask a course-related question.” Even though Baker College uses similar criteria in determining student attendance, this is a more rigorous standard than is required in face-to-face classrooms.

    Additionally, and from a rhetorical perspective, the College believes that a sworn statement from a student, instructor or employee that a student was enrolled or sufficiently engaged in a course would constitute adequate evidential matter to meet the standard of evidence of academic activity. And while the College does not take sworn statements when calculating withdrawals, it considers the representations of instructors, students and other staff to bear the utmost integrity.

    Also of note is the fact that the vast majority of excess Title IV funds that OIG contends the College kept, was in fact not kept by the College. Instead, based on our low tuition cost structure, excess funds were generally dispersed to the students to be used for other education related expenses. Although not required to, the College assumed and paid the full liability that resulted from the F grade audit.

    Please be advised that Baker College has taken all recommendations of both the Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Education into account and implemented them within one academic quarter. The only issue that remains undetermined is whether the Carina attendance system meets the, as yet to be published or determined, requirements of the U.S. Department of Education.

    The College has appreciated the interaction with the OIG and its valuable input into improving our administrative procedures and information system capabilities. The College’s intentions have always been to steadfastly adhere to all published and established regulations and practices and to perform as close to 100% compliance with those regulations and practices as humanly possible.

    Sincerely,

    F. James Cummins, President
    Baker College

  2. Posted August 27, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink | Reply

    BPCC will need to look into our LDA for online courses. I am sure whatever we are doing, it is not consistent across the board. We need a policy that is campus-wide.

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