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PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Aid given to 1,948 ineligible students at SCF

BRADENTON -- State College of Florida awarded federal financial aid to 1,948 ineligible students during the 2008-09 year, according to a letter that details findings of an audit.

SCF officials acknowledged last week that the school must reimburse $3,178,253 to the U.S. Department of Education after significant deficiencies were found in its handling of financial aid disbursements to students.

A Nov. 3 letter from the Department of Education warned SCF and 22 other Florida schools that repeat findings in future audits, or failure to satisfactorily resolve the findings of this audit might lead to a fine, or the limitation, suspension or termination of the eligibility of the institution.

Among the findings listed in the letter, which the college provided to the Herald:

n The school’s policies and procedures for determining whether a student had met the complex requirements for satisfactory academic progress did not meet federal requirements, and they were incorrectly applied.

n School officials granted appeals that did not meet acceptable standards.

n SCF incorrectly reported students’ enrollment status, and did not accurately identify students who officially withdrew or ceased at least half-time enrollment.

n The school failed to provide exit loan counseling or materials explaining repayment of loans and managing debt: “The institution’s FFEL/FDL (type of aid program) default rates have increased from 9.3 percent to 13.4 percent over the last three years,” the letter stated.

“School officials must strengthen its loan counseling procedures to avoid increasing default rates,” it read.

SCF President Lars A. Hafner and SCF Board Chairman Ronald J. Allen could not be reached for comment Friday, but Kathy Walker, SCF director of public affairs and marketing, said, “We have acknowledged we made mistakes, and are moving forward.”

SCF has been proactive in responding to those mistakes, and done “everything they asked us to,” Walker said.

For that reason, while SCF must reimburse nearly $3.2 million, it doesn’t face a fine, she said.

Among the cases auditors cited was that of a transfer student who was awarded $7,141 in aid before SCF even got a copy of a transcript from other institutions he had attended. The transcript showed the student lacked the 2.0 grade point average he needed to qualify for financial aid.

Another case involved an appeal SCF granted for a student needing “economical help at home” -- not among acceptable mitigating circumstances listed elsewhere in the letter, which mentioned such things as injury, illness or death of a relative.

SCF was required to review the files of all 2008-09 recipients to determine whether each student was eligible for federal funds, based on corrected policies and procedures, the letter stated.

A table showed that the total number of ineligible students was 1,948, based on data provided as part of SCF’s June 23 response, it stated.

Another area school, the University of South Florida, which has a campus in Manatee County, was listed among 16 schools without any deficiencies, it stated.

SCF is still deciding the best way to repay the money to the federal government, Walker said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.