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RCC in the News: Nine Mass. colleges face federal scrutiny over financial aid

Boston Globe: Federal officials have placed nine Massachusetts colleges under heightened scrutiny because of concerns about their ability to manage student aid money, according to US government records released Tuesday.

Roxbury Community College, which is working on a turnaround after a string of financial and administrative lapses, faces the higher level of alert among the schools that were called out by the US Department of Education. RCC has been placed on a status of "heightened cash monitoring" for its money management.

The other Massachusetts colleges on the list, which includes 560 schools worldwide, are on the lower of two levels of federal scrutiny: Marion Court College in Swampscott; Signature Healthcare Brockton Hospital School of Nursing in Brockton; The New England Institute of Art in Brookline; Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington; Montserrat College of Art in Beverly; and Boston Baptist College, the New England College of Business and Finance, and Urban College, all in Boston.

RCC's president said Tuesday the college has improved its financial aid department during her tenure, and it expects federal officials to regain confidence in the college once they see this year's financial audit.

"I believe we've made really significant progress," said president Valerie Roberson, who took over in 2013, aiming to lift the school out of crisis.

Federal regulators can place schools on alert for a variety of reasons, including filing paperwork late, accreditation issues, concerns about a school's financial responsibility, or outstanding liabilities. The reason listed for RCC is "administrative capability."

"Being on the list isn't an automatic guarantee that the school has major problems, but it is a sign that something was not right at some point," said Ben Miller, higher education research director at the New America Foundation.

Schools on the list face more intensive reporting requirements in order to continue receiving federal student aid.

Officials at some of the Massachusetts colleges said the federal list lags behind real-time data.

Urban College of Boston president Michael Taylor said his school has improved its finances, but the list does not reflect that. Indeed, a 2014 audit of Urban College shows it is no longer on academic probation from the regional accrediting agency.

"It's the ghost of the financial past that keeps coming back to haunt us," Taylor said.

Other schools said the red flags may serve a good purpose.

"We probably should hold more cash reserves than we do," said Cara Callanan, chief financial officer at Montserrat College of Art, explaining that the decrease in liquidity was planned after years of investments in buildings and equipment. Montserrat now is considering merging with Salem State University to ease its financial problems.

This is the first time the list of schools on heightened cash monitoring status has been made public. The federal government released it after a request by Inside Higher Ed, the publication that first reported the data.

The federal government withheld the names of 23 institutions on the list, most of which are on the highest level of monitoring. The release of those names could jeopardize ongoing investigations into those schools, Education Department spokeswoman Denise Horn said Tuesday.

Roxbury Community College's financial aid program was in such disarray at one point that the US government refused to distribute funds directly to the school. Now, Roberson said, RCC has added two staff members to help with financial aid, provided more training, and conducted a review of its computer system.

"While it's a shame that [financial aid problems] had to get to that point, it's really helped us uncover, and I believe get to the heart of, fixing the problem," she said.

The changes have yielded results, she said. There is no longer a long line of students waiting at the aid office, and a recalculation of the cost to attend RCC helped students get a level of aid on par with other nearby community colleges, she said.

Several Massachusetts colleges on the list did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment.

 

By Laura Krantz - Globe Staff  March 31, 2015

Contact Laura Krantz at laura.krantz@globe.com.

Sources: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/03/31/eight-mass-colleges-face-tighter-scrutiny-over-financial-aid/rqi38C2Otup6S0kvyRbn2H/story.html