Watchdog Agency: MSI Grants Need Greater Oversight

The U.S. Education Department must conduct greater oversight of grants to minority-serving institutions and other developing colleges, says a government watchdog agency that cites management challenges and, in a few cases, improper spending among grantees.

 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the federal government has largely abandoned site visits to grantees in the Title III and Title V programs under the Higher Education Act. In conducting its own visits, GAO said it uncovered at least $142,000 in questionable expenses from total grant funding of $1.9 million.

 

Title III includes federal aid to historically Black colleges, tribal colleges and “developing institutions,” a category that includes many community colleges. Title V is the federal program of aid to Hispanic-serving colleges and universities.

 

GAO made visits to seven campuses this year and recommended that the Education Department investigate its reports of improper spending. For example, one unnamed institution spent $79,975 earmarked for service learning projects on “numerous student trips” to resorts and amusement parks, the agency said. The same institution spent $4,578 on an airplane global positioning system even though the school did not own an airplane, the agency said.

 

In responding to the report, the Education Department pledged to conduct visits at this college and others identified for improper spending.

 

The report also painted a picture of limited department oversight of these institutions. Some Title III and Title V recipients said the government offered little technical assistance to grantees. Officials at these institutions told GAO they received considerable help during the grant application process but noted a “precipitous drop in assistance” once they received funding.

 

Yet these colleges and universities may be among those with the greatest need for follow-up aid. “Because these institutions have limited resources, they may need additional assistance to successfully implement their grant projects,” GAO said.

 

Overall, GAO said, the Education Department conducted 26 visits to Title III and Title V grantees back in 2003. In 2008, however, the Education Department made just five site visits.

 

Training of program officers also was sporadic, the report noted. While the department developed courses on grant monitoring and internal controls, fewer than half of the program staff attended these courses, GAO said.

 

The watchdog agency urged the department to provide more staff training. In a written response, the Education Department said it will take such action and create a mentoring program that pairs each new program officer with an experienced program officer.

 

With a new secretary, Arne Duncan, in place this year, the department said it appointed an oversight improvement task force in May to improve monitoring of colleges and universities.

 

The Education Department also said it would follow another GAO recommendation to disseminate information about best practices and common implementation challenges.

 

Elsewhere, the report found some positive gains by grantees. In one case, an Alaska Native college was able to use grant funds to offer online courses in remote rural villages. GAO also said Title III and Title V grantees spent 43 percent of federal funds on academic quality, including technology improvements, and one-third of funds on student support services such as tutoring and academic support.

 

The study, Management Attention to Long-Standing Concerns Needed to Improve Education’s Oversight of Grant Programs, GAO-09-309, is available from the Government Accountability Office at gao.gov.