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Audit: Talent Search Participation Overstated

By Vaishali Honawar — March 01, 2005 4 min read
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A Department of Education grant program that helps disadvantaged high school students go to college failed to properly guide and monitor grantees, which overstated the number of participants during the 2001-02 award year, according to an audit by the department’s inspector general’s office.

The audit raps the TRIO program, administered by the Education Department’s office of postsecondary education, for its records on Talent Search, which provides counseling to disadvantaged youths who have the potential to enroll in college. President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2006 budget would eliminate all of the Talent Search program’s $145 million in funding. The administration is proposing to shift the funding from Talent Search and two other TRIO programs, Upward Bound and GEAR UP, to its proposed High School Initiative.

The audit report warns that the practice of overstating Talent Search participation could be “widespread” because of the Education Department’s failure to maintain proper records and provide suitable monitoring services.

“The department may be using overstated Talent Search participant numbers for assessing grant performances and reporting to Congress and the general public,” Helen Lew, an assistant inspector general for audit services, wrote in a Feb. 16 letter to Sally L. Stroup, the assistant secretary for postsecondary education.

Ms. Stroup, in her response to a draft of the audit, had said that the audit’s statement on participant numbers was “speculative, rather than based on sound statistical methodology.”

She also cautioned against extrapolating findings based on a small sample of grantees to the “entire universe of projects” under Talent Search. The Education Department funded 360 Talent Search projects in 2001-02.

Ms. Stroup said four of the audits have already been resolved and corrective actions taken on a programwide scale. She said that in the future, institutions applying for Talent Search would be required to propose “realistic” participant numbers.

The inspector general’s office studied six grantees that received Talent Search funds in the 2001-02 school year: Luther College in Decorah, Iowa; the University of New Hampshire in Durham; Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland; Wahupa Educational Services, a private, nonprofit education agency in San Diego; Communities in Schools in San Antonio, a school-based program that addresses high dropout rates; and LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) National Educational Service Centers Inc., a nonprofit, community-based group in Washington that helps first-generation Hispanic students from low-income families.

The report found that the grantees overstated the number of participants, and that none could provide documents to support the number of participants they claimed to have served during 2001-02. Three of the six grantees failed to serve the required minimum of 600 participants, the audit found.

It also found that the grantees often reported participants for whom they could not document eligibility for the Talent Search program. It says that in two of the six cases, auditors identified instances in which services were routinely provided without verifying information or obtaining necessary documentation for participant eligibility.

Citing “inconsistent guidance” provided by the Education Department, one grantee began serving students who were not U.S. citizens or permanent residents because a TRIO education specialist failed to clarify that such students could not take part unless they produced evidence from federal immigration authorities showing their intention to become permanent residents, the report says.

Helen Soule, Ms. Stroup’s chief of staff, said that the department had “always emphasized those requirements that are in the grant” in meetings with grantees during TRIO training programs. To further clarify guidelines, the department has also established a TRIO newsletter and a Web site that grantees can refer to, she said.

The Newsletter Question

Auditors cited the University of New Hampshire, which has participated in the Talent Search program since 1969, for overstating its participant numbers and counting newsletters to students among its project services, although such publications don’t qualify under the grant’s guidelines. While the university claimed to have served 1,150 students in the 2001-02 year, auditors said their review showed that only 1,060 students were served.

Carolyn Julian, the associate director of the Talent Search program at the university, said it had subsequently provided auditors with documents showing it did, in fact, serve 1,150 students.

She said the university also provided more than the minimum number of services required under the grant, even without counting the newsletters.

“At one point we thought we could include the newsletters, but I can say that those 1,150 students received more than the [mandated] two services that were not newsletter services,” she said.

Eligible services include, for example, academic, financial, or personal counseling on entering postsecondary programs, tutorial services, help in completing college applications, aid in preparing for college-entrance exams, and mentoring programs.

A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Audit: Talent Search Participation Overstated

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