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Late documents put WV public colleges under financial aid restrictions


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Because West Virginia submitted an audit of its federal dollars late for three years running, the state’s public colleges were recently placed under greater financial aid restrictions from the federal government, documents show.

The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter this week to Susannah Carpenter, the chief financial officer of the state’s Department of Administration, discussing a set of sanctions involving Title IV funds.

Most students pay for schools with Title IV funds, a wide group of funds that include the Pell Grant and federally subsidized student loans.

In previous years, the federal education department would give schools the money directly, and the school would disburse that money to students, according to Jessica Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the Higher Education Policy Commission, the state agency which oversees four-year colleges.

Kennedy said under the current sanctions, the schools will need to come up with that money up front, keep record of the money dispersed, then ask the federal department to reimburse them at a later date.

Sarah Tucker, the chancellor of the Community and Technical College System, the state agency that oversees two-year colleges in the state, said in a statement the sanctions could potentially seriously undermine the financial stability of the state’s colleges.

“We are disappointed and concerned with this decision by the Department of Education, as it unfairly penalizes our state’s institutions for something over which we had no control,” said Paul Hill, chancellor of the HEPC. “This sanction places an extreme financial hardship on the schools that serve the most needy of our state’s students and has the potential to harm the institutions that are doing the most to help them.”

The sanctions come after a tough year of budget cuts from the state Legislature, causing many colleges in the state to raise their tuition and fees. Historically, the colleges have struggled with keeping a high amount of cash on hand throughout the year.

It’s not clear how long that reimbursement would take. A spokesman for the federal department did not respond to a request for comment in time for this report.

“When I find out who is responsible heads will roll,” said Gov. Jim Justice in an statement. “Our schools and students are being penalized because of a mistake that’s been brewing two years and ten months before I got here. We’ve got to get to the bottom of it because West Virginians deserve better.”

Justice’s statement came several hours after the Gazette-Mail asked the Department of Administration for a comment. The department’s spokeswoman, Diane Holley-Brown, directed all questions to the governor’s office.

Federal regulations classify tardy financial audits as a sign of financial irresponsibility, which is what triggered the sanctions.

Kennedy said that officials at the colleges were not to blame, that their information was submitted to the state on time, but that someone at the state level didn’t submit the audit on time.

The audit was due at the end on March 31. The federal education department didn’t receive and accept the financial statements until May 22, according to a copy of the letter. This was the third year that happened. Kennedy said that financial information for the state’s public colleges were combined with other agencies’ information for the audit.

When the March deadline came, “the train was too far off the tracks for the Governor’s staff to rescue it,” according to Justice’s statement. Justice also said he would get to the bottom of who’s to blame for the issue.

The letter the Gazette-Mail obtained was in response to a letter sent to the federal education department days before the deadline, asking the department not to enact the sanctions. It’s unclear which state department or official sent the earlier letter, but the federal department’s response was to Carpenter.

“There is going to be finger pointing like crazy, but the only way to improve is to admit that something isn’t working,” Justice said. “I didn’t break it, but I’ll fix it. In the past, our federal delegation was able to correct this and I hope they can help me fix it again this year.”

Hill said the governor’s office, state agencies and all of the colleges are working together to find a short-term solution to make sure students aren’t affected by the sanctions.

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