WDBJ7 In-Depth: Virginia schools work to prevent financial aid fraud

By  | 

ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) Every summer, college freshmen face the same dilemma.

They've been accepted to the school of their choice. Now they have to figure out how to pay for it all.

That's where financial aid counselors like Mayra Vazquez are available to help.

"When they hear college, all the see is the dollar signs and they don't realize there are programs out there to help them," said Vazquez, a financial aid office manager at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke.

Among the largest programs is the Pell Grant, a Federal award available for students who demonstrate financial need. For the upcoming school year, qualifying students can receive up to $6,195 per year.

"It's a great program at any college," remarked Vazquez, who says Pell money can pay for more at a community college.

"It gives a student an opportunity to attend with almost all tuition covered," Vazquez explained.

Unlike 4-year schools where the cost of attendance is often more than $25,000 per-year, community colleges are more affordable. Last year, Virginia Western students paid just $178 per credit hour.

"A Pell Grant really does go farther at a community college," said Vazquez.

Of the 23 community colleges in Virginia, roughly 25% of all students, 59,852 people, received a Pell Grant during the 2017-18 school year.

"Federal financial aid is certainly a significant opportunity for many of the students we serve," said Jeff Kraus, the Virginia Community College System's assistant vice chancellor for strategic communications.

Pell Grants cover more than just tuition. Students can use the money to pay for textbooks, transportation, food, even daycare.

"Pell Grants were created to make higher education possible," Kraus said.

If a Pell recipient has money left over after paying tuition and fees, they automatically get a refund check from their school.

Of the 59,852 Virginia community college students who received a Pell Grant in 2018, 43,136 were given a refund.

Most use their refund money for it's intended purpose: to pay for living expenses associated with their college education; however some take the cash, drop out of school and disappear. In financial aid circles, those fraudsters are known as "Pell Runners," and community colleges are often a target because they're easy to access and Pell refunds from those schools tend to be larger.

"Most of the people the people we serve throughout Virginia's 23 community colleges are honest people," said Kraus, who emphasized in multiple emails and conversations with WDBJ7 that "Pell Running" is not a major problem for the Commonwealth's public, two-year schools.

"The Federal government has its own policies and practices to ensure that the taxpayers are protected in this scenario," Kraus said of Pell Grant oversight.

The Federal government tracks what it calls "improper payment" of Pell Grant funds to people who shouldn't have received the money. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education estimated more than $2.3 million dollars in Pell money was improperly awarded.

"We do pay close attention to it," Kraus said of the Pell program.

Without going into specifics, Kraus said the Virginia Community College System tracks Pell money closely. If a Pell recipient fails a course, withdraws, or stops coming to class, they're expected to pay the full amount of their grant back to their college. During the 2017-18 school year, 7% of all Pell recipients at Virginia's community colleges, 4,216 students, owed money for withdrawing from classes or ceasing to attend.

"If the student owes the college debt, they can't come to the college until the debt is paid," Vazquez explained.

Vazquez and Kraus say the bigger problem in Virginia isn't the number of students defrauding the system. Instead, they say a lot of Pell money is going unused by people who could benefit from the program but never apply.

"Pell Grants could make those opportunities affordable, and these folks just don't know that," said Kraus.

"It helps offset the student's financial burden and the stress of coming to college and thinking they can't afford it," said Vazquez.

The Federal government has paid out more than $300 billion dollars in Pell money to college students over the past decade, and with President Trump's call to expand the program, even more taxpayer dollars are expected to flow through the grants moving forward.