Title IV Funds Must be Administered with the Highest Standard of Care

Northwest Florida State College (NWFSC) is an institution of higher education located in Niceville, Florida. On January 18, 2012, FSA issued a final audit determination letter citing two findings. NWFSC appealed the first finding, which stated that, for award year 2009-2010, NWFSC failed to apply its published satisfactory academic progress (SAP) policy.

FSA contends that NWFSC failed to demonstrate that it established, published, and applied reasonable standards for measuring a student’s SAP as required by federal regulations. FSA states that NWFSC submitted two different SAP policies that it maintained were in effect for the 2009-2010 academic year. The two policies were the Catalog SAP and the Revised SAP. The policies are essentially the same, the difference being that the Catalog SAP did not allow for a probationary semester of eligibility and the Revised SAP allows a probationary semester of eligibility.

This policy was published in the catalog and in the Policy & Procedures manual. It does not mention a probationary period of eligibility. NWFSC maintained that the Catalog SAP policy was outdated and had been revised, but the catalog had not been updated.

NWFSC argued that the Revised SAP policy was established and published during the 2009-2010 academic year. The Revised SAP policy was included with the student’s financial aid award letter at the beginning of the Fall 2009 semester. NWFSC also claimed that the Revised SAP policy was published on the institution’s website, though it offered no evidence to demonstrate this.

The Court, however, disagreed and found that there was no persuasive proof that the SAP policy letter was sent with the award letter. It also found that the SAP policy should have been sent to all enrolled students, not just students failing to meet SAP.

The Court reasoned that an institution can have only one SAP policy, otherwise implementation would create inconsistencies in the institution’s ability to measure SAP. It stated that an institution has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure financial aid funds are directed to the correct source. Institutions must ensure that financial aid documentation is accurate. To that end, the Court found that the practiced SAP policy at NWFSC should have been consistently applied in all print and electronic forms of communication. NWFSC did not properly review its financial aid documentation, which created a discrepancy in how SAP was measured . NWFSC did not act with the highest standard of care and diligence in administering federal education funds.

The assessed liability of $340,845 was upheld.

If you have any comments or questions, you may contact Milton L. Kerstein, Esq. via email at mkerstein@kcl-law.com or by telephone at 617-965-9698.

This article is provided, with the assistance of Sherron Heller and Russ Romandini of The Higher Education Assistance Group, Inc., for general information purposes only and with the understanding that neither the authors or publisher are engaged in rendering legal advice or opinion. If legal advice is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought.