Department of Education misappropriated $73 million in COVID payments, report finds

As part of its COVID-19 relief efforts, the Department of Education incorrectly distributed grants for 24 universities and colleges.

The mistakenly distributed funds were part of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.

The Department of Education (DOED) incorrectly distributed about $73 million in duplicate grants to 24 colleges and universities, according to an audit by the DOED Office of Inspector General (OIG).

The audit found that the ED’s Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) “did not always prevent or timely identify and correct duplicate HEERF grant awards, and that OPE did not consistently document activities taken to correct duplicate awards.”

The mistakenly distributed funds were part of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). HEERF was intended to help colleges and universities cope with “the uncertainty and ripple effect of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on institutions of higher education, staff, faculty, students, and parents.” 

Roughly $76 billion was distributed as part of this program. 

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Per the OIG report, 15 institutions submitted two applications for the same grant, which the DOED approved, and nine only filed one application but received two grants from the DOED. 

Sixteen of the affected institutions did not spend the duplicate funding, three returned duplicate funding they had spent, and three drew duplicate funding which was subsequently reallocated correctly.

The two remaining schools received about $1.2 million in duplicate funds that were initially retained. These, however, were later recovered by “reducing [one school’s] ARP award by the amount of the duplicate award in January 2022, and the other school returned the funds in March 2022.”

Rather than improving with time, the government report found that the ED actually incorrectly distributed grants more often after the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) was passed than they did following the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), which preceded the ARP. 

“[T]he number of duplicate awards actually increased slightly from CRRSAA to ARP”, the audit states.

On average, it took the DOED between four and 16 months to discover that they had incorrectly distributed grants. For duplicate grants allocated between April and November 2020, for example, it took the ED almost a year and a half on average to correct their mistakes.

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“OPE could improve its quality assurance review process for HEERF and other future emergency Federal education programs to lessen the risk of making overpayments to schools and of schools drawing down more funds than they were allocated”, the report concludes.

Michelle Asha Cooper, acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the DOED, blamed COVID-19 and “limited staff and resources” for the oversight, according to a report by Higher Ed Dive.

Former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told attendees at an American Enterprise Institute event on June 14 that she “frankly doesn’t think the Department of Education should exist”, and expressed her surprise at “how poorly the [educational] system responded to a crisis.”

Campus Reform contacted the Department of Education for comment; this article will be updated accordingly.