The Missouri Department of Higher Education was scolded by the state auditor’s office for poorly managing student scholarship programs, failing to collect overdue student loan debt and not protecting student financial data.
A report released Monday by State Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office gave the department only fair marks — one step up from poor — in a few areas that relate to monitoring the public’s money.
The audit report said the department does “not sufficiently monitor the validity of data provided by institutions to support (student) eligibility” for the 11 scholarship and financial-assistance programs it administers.
For example, the audit investigation found that in one situation, a Missouri student was allowed money under the state’s A+ program five years after the student had graduated from high school. That gap exceeds the eligibility guidelines.
It also accused the department of failing to adequately monitor its state loan forgiveness program, which allows part of some student loans to be forgiven once the graduate holds a state job in certain high-demand areas.
The report said the state hasn’t issued such loans in this program since 2005 and that of the approximately $8 million issued to 2,041 students, about $5.2 million remains unpaid.
In response, department officials said in a statement Monday that loan forgiveness programs, like Advantage Missouri, “are labor intensive and require frequent, long-term contact with students who receive funding through such programs.” But, the department added, “no additional staff or resources” were provided to the department to administer the loan forgiveness program when legislation was established in 1998.
In 2005, “the General Assembly stopped appropriating funding for the program,” said Liz Coleman, a spokeswoman for the department.
The statement also said that subsequent staff and funding cuts “further limited the department’s ability to track the residence and employment status of program participants and collect repayment from those who no longer qualified for loan forgiveness.” However, department officials said they would continue to work with borrowers to get loans repaid.
Another section of the auditor’s report accused the higher education officials of failing to protect vital information dealing with students’ personal finances. The department’s electronic financial aid administration system doles out about $120 million in state financial aid to more than 70,000 students in Missouri each year.
“There has been no breach of security since the system was established in 2005,” state officials said. “The department recently revised the system to further strengthen the protection of sensitive information necessary to award state financial aid to students.”
Department officials also were criticized in the audit for not always complying with the state’s Sunshine Law and holding some public meetings without keeping minutes of what went on.