Officials at the University of Central Arkansas approved, adjusted and renewed scholarships without documentation and sometimes without apparent merit — awarding some students thousands more than what they should have received during the 2011-2012 fiscal year, according to an internal audit on university scholarships. The audit was released Thursday.
The problems the audit found were "just errors," said Larry Burns, special projects director in enrollment management. "We’ve got to find a way to just fix those and that’s what we’ve done."
Officials said Thursday the problems spotlighted in the audit are being fixed.
Scholarships are mostly handled through Financial Aid and Enrollment Management but have previously been in various departments and not consolidated, said Robert Parrent, vice president for enrollment management. UCA officials moved scholarships under Financial Aid for the 2012-2013 school year to streamline the process, he said.
The audit, which looked at a sample from the pool of scholarship recipients, found "errors" that include allowing the same official to adjust aid and approve disbursement, missing documentation in student files and allowing staff to use "personal judgment" to adjust scholarships and cost of attendance adjustments.
In one case, a top scholarship was awarded despite a grade point average of 2.45 out of 4.0, which disqualified the student. In another case, two students with scholarships received "excess aid funds" for thousands for "personal living expenses" when policy says students shouldn’t receive "any cash back from any source," according to the new audit.
In other cases, UCA staff used "professional judgment" without giving any documentation to support why they made the decision.
Enrollment Management Associate Vice President Julia Winden Fey approved two exemptions for two scholarship recipients but did not add any documentation to support her reasons on why they were granted. She told auditors she used "professional judgment." The audit showed three students also received exceptions without supporting documentation for medical condition or military service.
"As stated above, management indicates these renewals were based on professional judgment," according to the report.
UCA spent about $17.6 million in fiscal 2011 on unrestricted educational and general scholarship expenditure, and the most-recent audit looked at a sample from several scholarships that totaled about $7.1 million, according to the report.
Parrent said Thursday the problems the audits found in how UCA handled its scholarships are being fixed with new policies and practices. The new practices provide "good checks and balances so that all the awards are straight forward."
In January, the university began putting new policies in place to prevent abuse and better track scholarships after an audit released in December detailed a lack of policy, oversight and communication at UCA, including the Financial Aid office. That audit also noted former Assistant Director of Financial Aid for Scholarships Andrew Linn made an adjustment for Cameron Stark, a former student worker in the President’s Office, without proper documentation. The adjustment allowed Stark to accept additional federal loans.
Linn was fired Jan. 28 after an investigation found he oversaw the financial aid of his friend, Stark, advised Stark on how to get a scholarship renewed and allowed Stark to file paperwork on a damaged car wheel that allowed Stark to get about $1,300.
Stark was arrested in June for breaking into university buildings using the key of then-Chief of Staff Jack Gillean and stealing UCA exams. Stark is the key witness in the case against Gillean, who has been charged with a misdemeanor and four felonies that include commercial burglary. The case is set for a pre-trial hearing March 4.
Financial Aid Director Cheryl Lyons said during an Audit Committee meeting in December that Linn used professional judgement when granting Stark’s cost of attendance adjustment.
During an internal investigation into Linn, Lyons said at the time Linn’s actions did not make her concerned, according to an audio recording in Linn’s personnel file. Lyons said Linn wasn’t the only employee who made an adjustment that "shouldn’t have been done." At least one other employee had made a cost of attendance adjustment based on bills, like a cable bill, around the same time, Lyons said.
The December audit also notes Burns renewed Stark’s Presidential Scholarship — worth about $32,000 over four years — for the 2011-2012 school year even though Stark had not completed the required hours. The move was made for a "medical exception" without supporting documents. Burns told auditors the "scholarship was renewed but was unable to provide supporting documentation or evidence of supervisory approval," according to the audit.
Besides Linn, no other Financial Aid or Enrollment Management employees have been fired or reprimanded, spokesmen Fredricka Sharkey and Jeff Pitchford said.
The Audit Committee held a closed meeting to discuss "personnel matters" Thursday but made no action.
The audit looked at the 2011-2012 school year, and officials said Thursday much has changed since then.
Those changes include a new Conflict of Interest Form for both enrollment and financial aid offices so that staff cannot oversee the scholarships of friends. Other changes include requiring dual signatures on scholarship exception and having separate access for adjusting amounts and approving scholarships. By March 1, staff plan to have written procedures for Scholarship Renewal Processing that better tracks reasons for granting exceptions, Winden Fey said.
One scholarship, the Leadership II Scholarship, had no criteria and were awarded to students based on the recommendation of UCA recruiters. The scholarship, which UCA spent $88,500 total on, was established by former President Allen Meadors and has since been discontinued, UCA officials said Thursday.
On Tuesday, UCA bought a date stamp so that documents can be dated and more easily tracked, Parrent said. Financial Aid counselors will be trained on professional judgment via a webinar May 15, he said.
"I feel good with what we’ve put in place," Parrent said. "This is very, very good."
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