Recurring errors, such as outdated federal financial aid applications, are likely what prompted the U.S. Department of Education to request a deeper review of student financial aid files from the College of Southern Nevada.
The errors turned up in an independent audit in 2011-12, which found that for nine of 58 students reviewed, CSN had not updated application information for federal student aid, according to college spokeswoman K.C. Brekken.
CSN President Michael Richards’ first goal is protecting students who were unaware their aid packages were inaccurate, according to a letter sent Tuesday to the state’s Board of Regents.
“A second goal is to make significant changes in our financial aid department to restore the confidence and accountability of this critical unit of the college,” Richards said in the letter. “For too long, this department has experienced management transitions and limited staffing as demands for student financial aid escalated.”
College officials acknowledged Tuesday that some students’ federal aid was miscalculated during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 fiscal years because of human error. A day before the problems were made public, Santos Martinez, vice president for student services who oversaw financial aid, resigned just two months after renewing his contract with the college.
CSN disbursed $71 million in federal financial aid in 2012-13.
The processing errors in awarding federal financial aid included miscalculating the cost of attendance for some part-time students and not enacting adequate measures to ensure accuracy when staff members reviewed student financial documents to determine eligibility amounts. In fall 2012, about 74 percent of CSN students were part-time, according to Brekken.
In the coming days, the college will be emailing letters to students who were identified by the U.S. Department of Education for verification of financial aid awarded in 2011-12 and 2012-13, Brekken said. Their financial aid may have been accurate, underpaid or overpaid.
The number of students red-flagged for 2011-12 is 7,300 and the number of students for the 2012-13 year is 5,800, Brekken said. However, some students included in the first-year count could also be a part of the second-year count. A task force has been established to assist the students, but as of Friday afternoon, the letter hadn’t been finalized and an email or phone number for students to call wasn’t available.
College officials became aware of the errors during a summer assessment of student award files, a review requested by the U.S. Department of Education for the 2011-12 year, officials said earlier this week. Officials then contracted with ProEducation Solutions to conduct a similar assessment for the 2012-13 year, which is still being finalized. Officials won’t release the 2011-12 assessment until the report for 2012-13 is completed. At that point, officials will know how much the college overpaid to students in the last two years. The college will have to reimburse the U.S. Department of Education.
“We’re making every best effort to get this done as soon as possible,” Brekken said in an email regarding the second assessment.
Attempts to reach Martinez for comment since he resigned have been unsuccessful. His contract shows it was renewed July 1. It was set to expire June 30, 2014. His annual salary was $158,000.
“He was a good guy,” said Fred Conquest, a CSN anthropology professor who said problems in the financial aid office began before Martinez assumed his role as vice president for students services at the college. “He looked out for the students the best he could. None of this is his fault.”
Conquest, who ran for governor in 2010, believes problems in the financial aid department were the result of lack of staffing. Some students had to submit paperwork three or four times, he said.
“Stuff got lost in the cracks,” he said.
In the past year, the college added eight financial aid positions, a 50 percent increase in the department, Brekken said.
The college will use vending machine revenue and other auxiliary services funds to pay back the money it overpaid to students in federal financial aid. The college will be reimbursed by the federal government for the students who were underpaid.
“The students are suffering,” Conquest said. “When you start messing up the students’ lives, that’s a whole different ball game.”
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