Whistleblowers in Higher Education are Necessary to Prevent Abuse of COVID-19 Relief

Colleges and Universities around the country are facing extreme challenges due to the spread of COVID-19. While classes and graduations around the country moved to Zoom during the spring semester, these same institutions now face the difficult decision of what route to take come the fall. Many schools have to balance the importance of safety for students, faculty, staff, and community members, while trying to stay afloat financially. According to Forbes, the financial impacts of COVID-19 are widespread and affect the largest research universities and smallest liberal arts colleges alike. Forbes highlights that as long as COVID-19 continues to spread, and safety measures such as online classes and social distancing are implemented, colleges and universities face the threat of losing tuition dollars and valuable revenue that comes from a traditional calendar year, such as sporting events.

In order to remedy this problem facing higher education, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, otherwise known as the CARES Act, allocated a total of $14 billion in order to help support struggling institutions and their students. Of the money distributed to higher education institutions, according to Section 10084(c), at least half must go to students in need of financial aid. Each institution received a specific allocation of the federal funds, with a designated amount for these students. However, as is the case with any large allocation of taxpayer dollars, it is critical to ensure that funds are utilized responsibly by the institutions that receive them. Therefore, the Department of Education requires that colleges and universities that are allocated funds from the CARES Act submit reports that outline specifically how they are distributed.

Moreover, the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Education published a report that outlines the importance of oversight when implementing CARES Act funding. It states that “oversight and monitoring” and “data quality and reporting” are the two biggest challenges the Department faces, and that “the Department must remain alert and take necessary actions related to these two challenges to reduce vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, noncompliance, and other issues that could impact a grantee’s or subgrantee’s ability to achieve intended programmatic results.”

While groups such as the American Council on Education criticized that the initial $14 billion “assistance included in the measure for students and institutions is far below what is required to respond to the financial disaster confronting them,” many hope for more relief with another stimulus package. Therefore, as money could continue to funnel into higher education institutions, it is essential that the ways in which taxpayer dollars are spent aligns with the goals of the CARES Act and the Department of Education. Therefore, whistleblowers remain necessary in this oversight, and play a key role as long as higher education continues to face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The survival and financial support for higher education is essential, and this must be accomplished without fear of waste and fraud.

Emma Bass is the current Public Interest Advocacy Fellow at Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund.