UF not tracking dropped courses, federal audit finds


Published: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 4:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 4:17 p.m.

The University of Florida has changed its grading policies after an audit discovered that some instructors were not tracking students who dropped out of classes after they received financial aid.

"This new process will allow us to better determine the difference between an earned E (failing) or U (unsatisfactory) grade," UF Provost Joe Glover said. "Financial aid for those students who never participated or who stopped participating must be repaid by the university."

The U.S. Department of Education last year distributed $143 billion in financial aid under the Title IV Higher Education Opportunity Act — grants, loans and work-study opportunities. The money enabled 14.2 million students and their families who otherwise couldn't afford college to pay for tuition, books and housing.

The government depends on the accurate collection of information about the numbers of students who complete their courses, drop them or fail.

It's the responsibility of the universities to accurately track the students who withdraw and return money that was not earned.

"This is a common issue universities deal with," said Jane Glickman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education. "After which point in time do we have to return money? These are taxpayer dollars being spent."

Errors are not found on a large scale, she said, but it's critical that universities correct them quickly when they do catch them.

"It is not a rampant problem, because the schools want to do the right thing and have a lot of good people who know how to comply with our requirements," she said. "Otherwise, they can get penalized, and they don't want to do that."

The federal government relies on the Florida Auditor General to conduct reviews each year to make sure the universities and colleges are complying with the legal and regulatory requirements that go with distribution of that aid, said Kim Wilmath, director of communications for the Board of Governors.

"We meet with the auditors, and they audit our files," Student Financial Aid Director Rick Wilder said. "If they have any observations or findings, we respond to them, and those are included in the response to the Auditor General."

The audit, released in March, identified $141,897 in questionable financial aid dollars awarded to students at 12 Florida colleges and universities in the 2011-12 academic year. The top three questionable disbursements were:

* $47,000 by Florida A&M University

* $32,822 by Northwest Florida State College

* $29,250 by University of North Florida.

The University of Florida was cited for distributing $9,586 to two students who had unofficially withdrawn or not attended the classes for which they had registered. Also, the university had not calculated how much of an additional $47,000 should have been returned for students who had quit after attending at least one class.

The audit found that UF had not implemented "adequate procedures" to determine whether federal financial aid was earned for students who stopped attending without notifying the university.

The auditors looked at the records of 15 students enrolled in 44 classes during the fall 2011 and spring 2012 terms who unofficially withdrew. The auditors sent letters to their teachers to obtain their last date of attendance in class or to find out if they had attended at all. The auditors received written responses for 12 students in 21 classes where instructors provided a last the date of attendance. An incorrect grade was reported for 10 of those students, two-thirds of the students whose records were examined.

The auditors noted that the university identified $9,586 paid to students that should have been returned — in one case because the student never attended class, and in the other case because the university didn't document the student's attendance to any class.

The auditors also noted that the university didn't determine how much of $30,216 in federal aid should have been returned for six students who stopped taking classes.

And the university didn't provide any documentation for three students who stopped attending after one class and received $17,427, nor did the university determine how much of that money should have been returned.

Zina Evans, vice president for enrollment management at UF, said the university has implemented new procedures recommended by the auditors to ensure that students who withdraw unofficially are accurately noted.

From now on, when graders try to assign an "E" or failing grade for a student, she said, they will have to answer a series of questions:

* Did the student ever attend or participate in academic-related activity?

* Did the student stop attending or participating in that academic activity?

* Did the student complete the class and earn a failing grade?

Based on how the teacher answers those questions, Evans said, the university grading system will calculate and record the appropriate grade or grade code, which then will trigger related actions to adjust the financial aid for each student as needed.

And although the errors were found for a small percentage of the thousands of students at UF who receive financial aid, the school takes the matter seriously enough to change grading policy throughout the campus. How the university complies with the rules can potentially impact $321 million in financial aid.

"It is absolutely imperative that we collect accurate information to assure UF's compliance with Title IV aid requirements," Glover said.

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