On February 11, 1998, the Office of Student Financial Assistance (SFAP), issued a Final Program Review Determination Letter (FPRD) to Donnelly College (the “College”) finding that the College, for the period of time July, 1989 through March 1997, had, among other findings, improperly paid Title IV monies to ineligible students. Donnelly College is a two year community college serving an economically and educationally disadvantaged student population.
Consistent with its rights under Subpart H of the Title IV regulations, the College appealed. The case was heard by Administrative Law Judge Richard I. Slippen after oral argument. The Judge rendered his decision on May 4, 1999 and his decision was approved by the Secretary of Education on June 14, 1999.
The basis of the dispute between SFAP and the College was the College’s Basic Education for Life-Long Learning (B.E.L.L.) Program. The College asserted that the B.E.L.L. Program was always intended to be part of the associate degree program offered at the College. It argued that its B.E.L.L. students were enrolled as Donnelly students similar to other Donnelly students and that there was no distinction between B.E.L.L. students and other Donnelly students admitted to eligible programs and taking courses at Donnelly.
In order to be eligible to receive Title IV funds, a student must be enrolled in an eligible program of study. An eligible program must lead to a degree, or be at least a two-year academic program acceptable for transfer to a bachelor’s degree program, or be at least a one year training program that leads to a certificate, degree or other recognized educational credential that prepares a student for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.
The B.E.L.L. Program was established to assist students with their basic skills in order for them to successfully complete a college degree program. It offered remedial course work to educationally and economically disadvantaged Donnelly students. The College argued that its B.E.L.L. students took remedial courses in order to develop the necessary academic skills to take credit bearing courses.
SFAP asserted that the B.E.L.L. Program was a stand-alone, remedial course work program. SFAP alleged that it did not lead to an eligible degree or certificate as defined by Title IV and therefore B.E.L.L. Program students were not enrolled in an eligible program. SFAP further asserted that because the B.E.L.L. students were enrolled in an ineligible program, any who received financial aid were improperly awarded and all funds were required to be repaid to the Department of Education (DOE).
Judge Slippen ruled for Donnelly College on this finding. Specifically, Judge Slippen found that the B.E.L.L. Program was an eligible program. He noted that the College catalogue had always stated that the B.E.L.L. courses were intended to provide students with basic skills. He disallowed SFAP’s argument that, because the College offered other non-financial aid eligible remedial course work as part of the Program, it must be a stand-alone program and not part of the associate degree program.
Importantly, he also disallowed SFAP’s argument that the low number of B.E.L.L. Program students who ultimately received associate degrees was proof that the program was a stand-alone and not part of an associates degree program. Judge Slippen stated that “It seems reasonable to me that serving a high-risk student population, as Donnelly does, may meet with limited success”. He also rejected similar anecdotal evidence that SFAP offered in its attempt to convince the Judge that the B.E.L.L. Program was an ineligible program.
This holding by Judge Slippen is very important as it endorses the College’s intent as it related to the B.E.L.L. Program. It suggests that, when dealing with high risk students, a College can rely on its stated intent for a program, as opposed to its success rate when the program is evaluated by SFAP for its financial aid eligibility.