Student Aid Fraud Skyrockets With Distance Learning

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Distance learning may already be the next big thing, but the Department of Education (ED) was trying to gauge the risk of student aid fraud when it sent a team from its Office of Inspector General (OIG) to audit the disbursement of student aid for distance learning on campuses. The audit covered 2009 to 2011.

The Final Audit Report found that distance education, where students attend virtual classes on a computer, was more vulnerable to student aid fraud than traditional programs held in brick-and-mortar classrooms.

The OIG looked at eight schools: two four-year colleges (Penn State, Kent State) two two-year colleges (Ivy Tech Community College and Valencia Community College), two private non-profits (Liberty University, Western Governors University) and two it defined as proprietary—but which are also well-known as for-profits: the University of Phoenix and ITT.

The OIG deemed five of the eight schools to be at low risk, but found a fraud ring at one of those. Of the remaining three, fraud rings were found at two. The OIG did not name any of the schools victimized by fraudsters.

The OIG found that current requirements to verify the identities of people getting federal loans and work-study aid who are enrolled in distance learning are not sufficient to mitigate fraud and risk. Fraud rings typically enroll "smurfs" who have no intention of completing their programs, staying long enough to get their money before dropping out. Distance learning, which allows students to be unseen and unheard, exacerbates the risk.

One of the OIG's most disturbing findings was how often taxpayers got no bang for their buck at all. "The eight schools disbursed nearly $222 million to more than 42,000 distance education students who did not earn any credits during a payment period," the report said. "Collecting and analyzing sufficient and appropriate data would help the department address risks, proactively adapt policies to address those risks, and better target its school compliance monitoring."