Report: $73 Million in Pandemic Relief Mistakenly Awarded to Colleges

The 25 duplicate awards represent less than 0.1% of the more than 30,000 HEERF grants colleges received during the COVID-19 pandemic.

June 20, 2022 · Updated on June 20, 2022

Edited by Alex Pasquariello
Report: $73 Million in Pandemic Relief Mistakenly Awarded to Colleges
COVID-19

  • The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) provides grants to schools to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus.
  • A Department of Education watchdog found 25 duplicate grants were mistakenly awarded to 24 higher education institutions.
  • The report identified improvements needed for the grant award process, including written policies and procedures for future programs to prevent duplicate grants.

More than $73 million in COVID-19 pandemic relief was mistakenly awarded to colleges as duplicate grants, but all of those funds were recovered.

The Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General disclosed the mistakes last week in a report that found officials gave 25 duplicant grant awards to 24 schools.

The report, which analyzed Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) awards from April 2020 to August 2021, found that no money was misspent despite the mistakes made by the Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education.

The 25 duplicate awards represent less than 0.1% of the more than 30,000 HEERF awards granted to colleges during the pandemic — but the report notes “it is important for OPE to take timely steps to address duplicate awards and prevent further duplicate awards.”

The Inspector General’s report found:

  • Sixteen schools didn’t draw down any funds from the duplicate HEERF awards they received.
  • Three schools used roughly $3.2 million in HEERF funds from the duplicate grants because they received two “Student Aid Portion” grants and no “Institutional Portion” grants. The schools used the duplicate Student Aid Portion grants for the Institutional Portion, which led to them using the correct amount of HEERF funding overall.
  • Three schools drew down roughly $600,000 in duplicate funding but later returned that funding.
  • Another two schools took and retained $1.2 million in duplicate HEERF awards as part of the CARES Act early in the pandemic. Education officials recovered the funding from one school by reducing its later American Rescue Plan Act grant award, and the other school returned the funding in March 2022.

Among the scenarios that generally resulted in the mistaken awards, the report found that 15 schools submitted two applications each for the same subprogram of the HEERF, and Education Department officials then mistakenly approved both applications. The remaining nine schools submitted just one HEERF application, but officials “processed duplicate awards that made more funds available for these schools than the approved allocation amounts.”

The report found that the number of duplicate awards varied with each round of HEERF funding. The report analyzed HEERF rewards from the CARES Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), and the American Rescue Plan Act.

OPE made 13 erroneous awards under the CARES Act, the earliest round of HEERF funding, five under the CRRSAA, and seven under the American Rescue Plan.

The time it took to correct those duplicates varied, although OPE had corrected 24 of the 25 duplicate grants by January of this year. Eighteen were corrected after the Office of the Inspector General notified OPE, five were corrected after the Office of the Inspector General identified them but before OPE was notified, and one was corrected in June 2021, before the analysis — although that correction wasn’t documented in the department’s grant management system.

Duplicate awards under the CARES Act took an average of more than 16 months to correct. Those awarded under the CRRSAA took an average of under eight months, and duplicates awarded under the American Rescue Plan took just 4.4 months to be corrected on average.

The Office of the Inspector General recommended that education officials implement written procedures for future emergency programs that address both application and award verification to prevent duplicate awards and correct any that occur in a timely manner, and also implement quality assurance reviews to identify duplicates.

Michelle Asha Cooper, the acting assistant secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education, said in a response to the report that the office agrees with the recommendations and “has already established and will continue to enhance procedures for quality control of grant obligations.”

Cooper added that the Office of Postsecondary Education was awarding grants while still setting up the program due to the urgent nature of the pandemic relief funding, and said the office was aware of “all but one” of the duplicates identified in the report and was either working to resolve or already resolved them. Cooper also wrote that no funds were misspent.

“We take seriously our obligation to ensure program integrity even as we seek to help IHEs meet urgent needs because of the pandemic,” Cooper wrote.