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The Education Department accidentally awarded $73 million in pandemic emergency funding through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund to 24 colleges as of August 2021, a new report from the department’s Office of the Inspector General found.

Federal stimulus funding helped to keep colleges afloat during the pandemic and helped to boost state budgets for higher education. The duplicate funds were a result of processing errors from the Education Department Office of Postsecondary Education, which occurred as a result of processing applications from colleges that accidentally applied to the same HEERF program twice or processing the same application twice. The department says the colleges did nothing wrong.

In total, the duplicate funds only accounted for 0.1 percent of the $76 billion allocated by the federal government in emergency COVID-19 funding to colleges and universities. However, the Education Department watchdog has suggested further policies and procedures to prevent duplicate awards.

Who Was Given Duplicate Funds?

The report did not name specific colleges that received duplicate funds; however, it did note the causes for process errors. Out of the 24 colleges that received duplicate funds, 15 had submitted two applications for the same HEERF program, and the remaining nine colleges had an application processed twice by the department.

Only eight colleges drew down the duplicate funds that were allocated to them. To correct the mistakenly allocated funds, the department either reduced the college’s grant award by the duplicate amount, authorized the college to use the duplicate award under a different subcategory of HEERF (such as using it toward student aid rather than institutional aid), or reduced the school’s American Rescue Plan award amount by the duplicate award.

The duplicate awards took an average of four to 16 months to be recognized and corrected, depending on the subcategory of the award that was duplicated. The OIG said in the report that the postsecondary education office did not show evidence of documenting duplicate awards and only did so once the OIG had brought the duplicate awards to their attention.

Future Work to Prevent Duplicate Awards

In response to the report, the postsecondary education office has agreed to establish procedures to process applications and awards for HEERF and future emergency programs quickly and accurately.

The postsecondary education office responded to the findings in the report in a letter written to the inspector general. In the letter, Michelle Asha Cooper, acting assistant secretary of postsecondary education, said, “We take seriously our obligation to ensure program integrity even as we seek to help IHEs meet urgent needs because of the pandemic. We continuously improved the administration of the programs to meet urgent needs with appropriate accountability.”

She continued, “Importantly, we note that among the double obligations identified, the Department was aware of all but one and had fully resolved or was in the progress of resolving the duplicate awards. It is also important to note that no HEERF grant funds were ultimately misspent. OPE quickly worked to resolve all identified instances that were not previously corrected and recovered funds were necessary without any harm to the taxpayer.”

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