The effort to modernize Federal Student Aid (FSA) technology and operations has proven to be a time-consuming and costly process, as evidenced by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) providing more than a dozen recommendations for FSA to consider to make needed improvements to the student, parent, and partner experience with the federal student aid system.
FSA’s Next Gen Initiative has a number of significant changes planned, which were previewed at NASFAA’s 2022 National Conference, such as financial aid dashboards with modern interfaces that will allow aid administrators to pull information directly from the Department of Education (ED) to review with given students, new and better navigation on the screen, and a new cohort default rate (CDR) dashboard.
But roughly five years after announcing the initiative, FSA still has four of nine projects left to complete, according to the GAO report released last week. Additionally, three out of those four remaining projects do not have a designated implementation date. Perhaps the most pressing project for financial aid professionals that is yet to be completed is the Partner Participation and Oversight (PPO) system.
GAO did note that FSA has completed five projects: a data strategy plan, a systems architecture document, a pilot effort on payments, deployment of a data management platform, and deployment of a loan data system.
In the GAO analysis, the watchdog group found that FSA’s budgeting was not always accurate and that its self-reported spending of $502 million didn't account for all costs, such as government labor.
In order to address the shortcomings of FSA’s budgeting and timeline for implementing the Next Gen program, GAO suggests the agency more clearly track and monitor program costs and estimates, define its project metrics, and update quality practices among a number of recommendations for moving forward with the Next Gen rollout.
A list of all the agency recommendations can be found in the full GAO report.
The report was created as a part of a recent spending bill for fiscal year 2021, in which Congress requested that GAO examine FSA's efforts to transition to the Next Gen program.
In response to a draft of the report, FSA Chief Operating Officer Richard Cordray said the agency “generally concurs” with GAO’s recommendations, “with some further considerations,” and noted that many findings in GAO’s report, including cost estimates, were developed with “information available” at the time the initiative was created.
“As implementation proceeded, various strategies, requirements, and timelines were adjusted, causing the government to realize additional costs,” Cordray wrote. “While FSA appreciates and benefits from GAO identifying IT best practices in implementing Next Gen, FSA nonetheless operates under certain constraints and must consider how to optimize the terms of existing contracts, current staffing levels, contractor capabilities, and other available resources, including the funding levels provided by Congress.”
Publication Date: 10/27/2022