COVID-19: Emergency Financial Aid for College Students under the CARES Act

What GAO Found

As of November 2020, the Department of Education (Education) had distributed $6.19 billion in grants to 4,778 schools (colleges and other institutions of higher education) that had applied for emergency student aid funds from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) established by the CARES Act, which was enacted in March 2020. After many schools closed their physical campuses in spring 2020 in response to COVID-19, Education provided these grants to schools, based on a statutory formula, to give emergency financial assistance (student aid) to students who incurred related expenses, such as for housing, technology, and course materials. The majority of these HEERF student aid funds have been awarded to public schools (see figure). The average amount Education awarded per school was about $1.3 million, while amounts schools received ranged from less than $2,000 to more than $27 million, with half of schools receiving awards of $422,000 or less. Education data show that, as of November 2020, schools had drawn down about 90 percent—or $5.6 billion—of their HEERF student aid funds. About 70 percent of schools had drawn down all of their student aid funds, and an additional 24 percent of schools had drawn down at least half.

Department of Education’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) Awards to Schools for Emergency Student Aid under the CARES Act, by School Sector

Notes: Schools of less than 2 years are included in the 2-year school categories above. The Department of Education also awarded about $24 million to 2-year private, nonprofit schools and about $1.7 million to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Department of Education. Sector-level figures do not add up to $6.19 billion because of rounding.

Schools used a variety of approaches to determine student eligibility and distribute funds to students. According to GAO’s analysis of a sample of school websites and data from Education, schools had distributed approximately 85 percent of all emergency student aid funds by fall 2020, with an average amount per student of about $830.

  • Determining student eligibility. Approximately half of schools reported that they required a completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)—the form used to apply for federal financial aid—to determine student eligibility for HEERF student aid. For example, one school reported requiring students who did not have a FAFSA on file to complete one by June 2020 to be eligible for student aid. Other schools did not require a FAFSA to establish eligibility, according to their websites, but reported using alternative methods. For example, a 4-year public school reported that graduate students applying for emergency aid had the option of submitting a school-provided affidavit certifying they were eligible to receive federal financial aid, an option described in Education’s interim final rule on student eligibility.
  • Awarding funds to students. Schools reported using two main methods for awarding HEERF emergency student aid to students: requiring students to complete a school-developed application or using existing school records. Approximately 18 percent of schools used a combination of both methods. For example, a 4-year nonprofit school reported on its website that it awarded $300 to $500 to eligible students in its first round of funding based on existing student financial aid records, and then allowed students who had more expenses related to COVID-19 to apply for additional funding.
  • Determining award amounts. Schools reported using various factors to determine award amounts for HEERF-eligible students. Over half of schools reported on their websites that amounts were based on individual circumstances, such as students’ general financial need, access to essential items such as food or housing, or a combination of these factors. About 20 percent of schools also reported using full-time or part-time status to determine aid amounts. For example, a 4-year public school reported that it distributed grants, ranging from $150 to $1,000, to all eligible students based on their enrollment status and financial need based on students’ FAFSA information.

Why GAO Did This Study

In June 2020, GAO issued the first of a series of reports on federal efforts to address the pandemic, which included a discussion of HEERF student aid grants to schools. At that time, limited information on how schools distributed HEERF funds to students was available. This report provides additional information and examines (1) how HEERF emergency student aid funds were provided to schools under the CARES Act, and (2) how schools distributed emergency student aid to eligible students.

GAO analyzed Education’s obligation data as of November 2020, after Education had obligated most of the HEERF emergency student aid funds. GAO also analyzed information about HEERF student aid that Education requires schools to report on their websites by selecting a generalizable random sample of 203 schools for website reviews. These schools were representative of the more than 4,500 schools that received HEERF student aid funds as of August 2020. GAO also collected non-generalizable narrative details about how schools distributed funds to eligible students.

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    From fiscal years 2010 through 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) obligated over $11 billion through four grant programs that fund state and local hazard mitigation efforts. FEMA awarded about 88 percent of this amount through the two grant programs that fund hazard mitigation post-disaster. State and local officials from selected jurisdictions reported challenges with FEMA's hazard mitigation grant programs. Specifically, officials GAO interviewed from 10 of the 12 jurisdictions said grant application processes were complex and lengthy. To address this, FEMA officials augmented guidance and began monitoring application review time frames for one program and said they intend to assess two other programs to identify opportunities to streamline. However, they did not have a documented plan for doing so. By developing and implementing a plan to identify ways to streamline applications and reviews for all four programs, FEMA could reduce barriers to investments in hazard mitigation. Officials from eight of the 12 jurisdictions also cited challenges with applicants' technical capacity to successfully apply for grants. To address this, FEMA developed training and guidance, but GAO found that these resources are listed on different parts of its website and can be difficult for state and local officials to locate. Creating a centralized inventory of resources could improve applicant capacity to successfully develop mitigation projects and apply for grants. Examples of Hazard Mitigation Projects FEMA has assessed some effects of grant-funded hazard mitigation projects, but could expand efforts and better share results. FEMA uses benefit-cost analysis, which estimates the benefits over the life of a project, and post-disaster loss avoidance studies, which estimate project benefits from actual hazard events, to assess project effects. However, the loss avoidance studies have been limited to hurricanes, floods, and tornados, and have not assessed wildfires, winter storms, or other disasters. FEMA officials stated that they would like to expand these studies but do not have specific plans to do so. In addition, FEMA requires some states to assess the effectiveness of their mitigation projects, but does not share these studies. Developing a plan to conduct loss avoidance studies for other hazards and sharing the state studies could help FEMA and stakeholders make better informed mitigation investment decisions. The rising number of natural disasters and increasing reliance on federal assistance are key sources of federal fiscal exposure. FEMA has four grant programs to increase disaster resilience through hazard mitigation projects. The Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act, 2019, included a provision for GAO to review the federal response to disasters in 2018. This report addresses 1) FEMA's use of grants to support hazard mitigation; 2) challenges reported by selected jurisdictions applying for grants; and 3) how FEMA has assessed the effects of its hazard mitigation projects and shared the results. GAO analyzed FEMA's grant data for fiscal years 2010 through 2018 to capture the most complete recent data, conducted nongeneralizable site visits with 12 state and local jurisdictions selected to capture a range of grant funding levels and hazards, reviewed FEMA grant documents, and interviewed FEMA mitigation officials. GAO is making six recommendations, including that FEMA develop a plan to assess and streamline its hazard mitigation grant programs, create a centralized inventory of related resources, develop a plan to conduct more loss avoidance studies, and share state studies on hazard mitigation effectiveness. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with our recommendations. For more information, contact Chris Currie at (404) 679-1875 or CurrieC@gao.gov.
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  • Priority Open Recommendations: Nuclear Regulatory Commission
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified seven priority recommendations for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Since then, NRC implemented one of these recommendations by issuing a risk management strategy that addresses key elements foundational to effectively managing cybersecurity risks. The remaining six priority recommendations involve the following areas: addressing the security of radiological sources. improving the reliability of cost estimates. improving strategic human capital management. NRC's continued attention to these issues could lead to significant improvements in government operations. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015, GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Mark Gaffigan at (202) 512-3841 or gaffiganm@gao.gov.
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  • Drug Safety: FDA’s Future Inspection Plans Need to Address Issues Presented by COVID-19 Backlog
    In U.S GAO News
    Fiscal year 2015 was the first time that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted more inspections of foreign drug manufacturers than domestic manufacturers, with the majority conducted in China and India. However, in June 2020, GAO reported that from fiscal year 2016 through fiscal year 2018, both foreign and domestic inspections decreased, in part due to staffing vacancies. While foreign inspections increased in 2019, since March 2020, FDA has largely paused foreign and domestic inspections due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, conducting only those deemed mission critical. In January 2021, GAO reported that FDA conducted three foreign inspections in fiscal year 2020 following the pause—significantly less than in recent years. Number of FDA-Conducted Foreign Drug Manufacturing Establishment Inspections, Fiscal Years 2019–2020, by Month FDA has used alternative inspection tools to maintain some oversight of drug manufacturing quality while inspections are paused. These tools include relying on inspections conducted by foreign regulators, requesting and reviewing records and other information, and sampling and testing drugs. FDA has determined that inspections conducted by certain European regulators are equivalent to and can be substituted for an FDA inspection. Other tools provide useful information but are not equivalent. In addition, FDA was unable to complete more than 1,000 of its planned fiscal year 2020 inspections and will likely face a backlog of inspections in future years. In January 2021, GAO recommended that FDA ensure that inspection plans for future fiscal years respond to the issues presented by the backlog and that FDA fully assess the agency's alternative inspection tools. FDA concurred with both recommendations. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, FDA faced persistent challenges conducting foreign inspections. GAO found in December 2019 that there continued to be vacancies among the investigators who conduct foreign inspections. GAO further found that FDA's practice of preannouncing foreign inspections up to 12 weeks in advance could give manufacturers the opportunity to fix problems ahead of the inspection and raised questions about their equivalence to domestic inspections. In light of COVID-19, FDA is now preannouncing both foreign and domestic inspections for the safety of its staff and manufacturers. GAO also found that language barriers can create challenges during foreign inspections as FDA generally relies on the establishment for translation services. The outbreak of COVID-19 has called greater attention to the United States' reliance on foreign drug manufacturers. FDA reports that 74 percent of establishments manufacturing active ingredients and 54 percent of establishments manufacturing finished drugs for the U.S. market were located overseas, as of May 2020. FDA is responsible for overseeing the safety and effectiveness of all drugs marketed in the United States, regardless of where they are produced, and it conducts inspections of both foreign and domestic manufacturing establishments. GAO has had long-standing concerns about FDA's ability to oversee the increasingly global pharmaceutical supply chain, an issue highlighted in GAO's High Risk Series since 2009. This statement is largely based on GAO's Drug Manufacturing Inspections enclosure in its January 2021 CARES Act report, as well as GAO's December 2019 and June 2020 testimonies. Specifically, it discusses (1) the number of FDA's foreign inspections, (2) FDA's response to the COVID-19 pandemic pause in inspections, and (3) persistent foreign inspection challenges. For that work, GAO examined FDA data from fiscal years 2012 through 2020, interviewed FDA investigators, and reviewed documents related to drug oversight during the COVID-19 pandemic, among other things. For more information, contact Mary Denigan-Macauley at (202) 512-7114 or deniganmacauleym@gao.gov.
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  • Department of Energy Contracting: Improvements Needed to Ensure DOE Assesses Its Full Range of Contracting Fraud Risks
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO identified nine categories of contracting fraud schemes that occurred at the Department of Energy (DOE), including billing schemes, conflicts of interest, and payroll schemes. For example, a subcontractor employee at a site created fraudulent invoices for goods never received, resulting in a loss of over $6 million. In another scheme, a contractor engaged in years of widespread time card fraud, submitting inflated claims for compensation. The contractor agreed to pay $18.5 million to settle the case. DOE reported that it identified nearly $15 million in improper payments due to confirmed fraud in fiscal year 2019. However, due to the difficulty in detecting fraud, agencies—including DOE—incur financial losses related to fraud that are never identified or are settled without admission to fraud and are not counted as such. Fraud can also have nonfinancial impacts, such as fraudsters obtaining a competitive advantage and preventing legitimate businesses from obtaining contracts. DOE has taken some steps and is planning others to demonstrate a commitment to combat fraud and assess its contracting fraud risks, consistent with the leading practices in GAO's Fraud Risk Framework. However, GAO found that DOE has not assessed the full range of contracting fraud risks it faces. Specifically, GAO found DOE's methods for gathering information about its fraud risks captures selected fraud risks—rather than all fraud risks—facing DOE programs. As shown in the figure, DOE's risk profiles for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 did not capture four of nine fraud schemes that occurred at DOE. For example, one entity did not include any fraud risks in its risk profiles, yet GAO identified six types of fraud schemes that occurred at the entity's site. DOE plans to expand its risk assessment process, but officials expect the new process will continue to rely on a methodology that gathers information on selected fraud risks. The Fraud Risk Framework states that entities identify specific tools, methods, and sources for gathering information about fraud risks. Without expanding its methodology to capture, assess, and document all fraud risks facing its programs, DOE risks remaining vulnerable to these types of fraud. Fraud Risks Identified in Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 Risk Profiles Compared with Types of Fraud Schemes That Have Occurred at DOE DOE is planning to develop an antifraud strategy in fiscal year 2022 and has taken some steps to evaluate and adapt to fraud risks, consistent with leading practices in GAO's Fraud Risk Framework. Part of DOE's effort to manage fraud risks includes adapting controls to address emerging fraud risks. Additionally, DOE is planning to expand its use of data analytics to detect contracting fraud, beginning in fiscal year 2022. DOE relies primarily on contractors to carry out its missions at its laboratories and other facilities, spending approximately 80 percent of its total obligations on contracts. GAO and DOE's Inspector General have reported on incidents of fraud by DOE contractors and identified multiple contracting fraud risks. GAO was asked to examine DOE's processes to manage contracting fraud risks. This report examines, for DOE, (1) types of contracting fraud schemes and their financial and nonfinancial impacts, (2) steps taken to commit to combating contracting fraud risks and the extent to which these risks have been assessed, and (3) steps taken to design and implement an antifraud strategy and to evaluate and adapt its approach. GAO reviewed relevant laws and guidance; reviewed agency media releases, Agency Financial Reports, and DOE Inspector General reports to Congress from 2013 through 2019; and reviewed documents and interviewed officials from 42 DOE field and site offices, contractors, and subcontractors, representing a range of sites and programs. GAO is making two recommendations, including for DOE to expand its fraud risk assessment methodology to ensure all fraud risks facing DOE programs are fully assessed and documented in accordance with leading practices. DOE concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Rebecca Shea at (202) 512-6722 shear@gao.gov or Allison B. Bawden at (202) 512-3841, bawdena@gao.gov.
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  • Crude Oil Markets: Effects of the Repeal of the Crude Oil Export Ban
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO's analysis of U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data and interviews with industry stakeholders shows that the repeal of the U.S. crude oil export ban is associated with increased crude oil exports—from less than half a million barrels per day in 2015 to almost 3 million barrels per day in 2019. The repeal of the ban expanded the market for U.S. crude oil to overseas buyers and, along with other market factors, allowed U.S. crude oil producers to charge higher prices relative to comparable foreign crude oil. Higher prices and an expanded market for U.S. crude oil further incentivized domestic crude oil production, which had been growing since the shale oil boom began around 2009 (see figure). During the period after the repeal, total U.S. imports of crude oil remained largely unchanged. Annual Production and Exports of U.S. Crude Oil, 2009-2019 GAO's analysis found limited effects associated with the repeal of the ban on the production, export, and import of domestic refined petroleum products, such as gasoline. However, profit margins—which are determined in part by the costs a refiner pays for the crude oil and the earnings a refiner receives from the sale of refined products—likely decreased as the prices refiners paid for domestic crude oil increased relative to international prices. Because gasoline prices are largely determined on the global market, U.S. refiners could not pass on to consumers the additional costs associated with the increase in crude oil prices, resulting in decreased profit margins for U.S. refiners. Finally, after the repeal of the crude oil export ban, the U.S. shipping industry experienced a decline as demand fell for U.S. tankers—known as Jones Act tankers—used to move domestic crude oil between U.S. ports. The increase in the relative price of domestic crude oils associated with the repeal of the export ban may have resulted in some U.S. refineries deciding to use more foreign crude oil. Foreign crude oil is typically transported by foreign tankers, reducing the demand for Jones Act tankers compared to what it would have been if the export ban had remained in place, according to six of the seven shipping industry stakeholders GAO interviewed. Between 1975 and the end of 2015, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act directed a ban on nearly all exports of U.S. crude oil. This ban was not considered a significant policy issue when U.S. oil production was declining and import volumes were increasing. However, U.S. crude oil production roughly doubled from 2009 to 2015, due in part to a boom in shale oil production made possible by advancements in drilling technologies. In December 2015, Congress effectively repealed the ban, allowing the free export of U.S. crude oil worldwide. GAO was asked to provide information on the effects of repealing the crude oil export ban. This report describes the effects of the repeal of the crude oil export ban on the domestic crude oil production, petroleum refining, and related sectors of the U.S. shipping industry. GAO analyzed data from EIA and other federal databases to determine the effects of repealing the export ban. GAO also interviewed a nongeneralizeable sample of economists, market analysts, and stakeholders from the oil and gas, refining, and shipping industries. GAO's analysis focused on the repeal of the crude oil export ban and any effects of the repeal on U.S. crude oil and related industries through March 2020. For more information, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or ruscof@gao.gov.
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