Ed. Dept. Behind Schedule on 'Year 2000 Bug'
The Department of Education missed several deadlines it set for itself last month for renovating its computer systems to avoid the so-called Year 2000 computer glitch, according to the General Accounting Office.
The behind-schedule systems involve key aspects of the student-loan delivery system and handle exchanges of information between the department and thousands of colleges and universities, lending institutions, and loan-guarantee organizations.
Experts say they are worried that the delays might shorten the time available for testing the systems.
"[The Education Department] faces a major task in conducting thorough end-to-end testing of multiple compliant systems. That will still be a major job ahead," Joel C. Willemssen, the director of civil agencies information systems in the GAO's accounting and information-management division, told a House subcommittee last week.
But acting Deputy Secretary of Education Marshall S. Smith told the panel that the department had made up for some of the delays last week. He expressed confidence that the processes and services the department oversees would not be disrupted by the glitch.
He said all but one of the 14 systems the department has identified as "mission critical" are on schedule for being corrected, and repairs to most of the department's other computer systems are on track.
In addition to loans for college students, the other mission-critical systems are the department's own central accounting system; the system that doles out federal impact aid to certain school districts; and the department's internal network and e-mail system.
The Year 2000 bug, caused by computer programmers' decades-old practice of using two digits to represent the year in date records, could cause many computer systems to fail or give incorrect information when the year becomes "00," experts say, because the computers may read 2000 as 1900.
The problem is vastly magnified in the computer systems of large organizations that reuse the same date records for many functions and exchange data with other organizations.
That's why the Education Department's support systems for student financial aid are such a concern. The vast enterprise involves some 6,000 postsecondary institutions, 4,800 lenders, 36 guarantor agencies, and state higher education agencies in delivering $46 billion each year in assistance to 8.5 million students.
The loan systems have "thousands of interfaces" with universities and lenders, said Karl M. Ross, the senior vice president of management information systems for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. "If any single one doesn't work, you can't do business with that partner. If you get a bad [data] tape in and accept it, it could corrupt the department's data."
The Education Department needs practically all of next year to get ready before the deadline that cannot be postponed--Jan. 1, 2000--according to Mr. Willemssen of the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.
Department officials expect to spend a total of $38 million on the problem by 2000.
Despite the GAO criticisms, Mr. Willemssen said the department "did make clear progress" since Sept. 17, the last time Mr. Smith reported to the Committee on Education and the Workforce's oversight and investigations subcommittee.
Early last month, the White House Office of Management and Budget placed the department and several other agencies, including the Department of Defense, in the lowest of three tiers of preparedness among federal agencies. Also last month, Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., who has been grading federal agencies on their Year 2000 readiness, awarded the department an F.
No Time To Spare
At the Oct. 8 subcommittee hearing--largely vacated by House members because of the concurrent debate on the presidential-impeachment inquiry--Mr. Smith said the department would have a plan for testing its systems with its customers by Nov. 15, though he couldn't predict when the department would receive their feedback on the plan.
But Mr. Willemssen remained skeptical. "Given the magnitude and complexity of the system, I'd be very pessimistic they have enough time to complete testing. I'd expect them to continue testing up to December 1999. It's likely there will be some problems," he said.
Mr. Ross agreed that the biggest concerns are that the department might reach its objectives late, reducing the time available for testing. He added that even tested systems might produce errors, and that the department needed contingency plans.
Department officials said they will draw up such plans and that they have contracts with two outside companies--Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc. and Intermetrics Inc.--to validate and verify the agency's tests independently.
At the heart of the testing process will be exchanges of data between the department's systems and those of its outside partners, many of which are also struggling to meet the 2000 deadline.
Vol. 18, Issue 7, Pages 22, 26Published in Print: October 14, 1998, as Ed. Dept. Behind Schedule on 'Year 2000 Bug'