Overview

The Department of Higher Education (DHE) was established under Section 6 of Chapter 15A of the Massachusetts General Laws to serve as the staff to the 13-member Board of Higher Education (BHE). BHE, which was created under Section 1 of Chapter 15A of the General Laws, is responsible for coordinating and defining the mission of the Commonwealth’s system of public higher education and its institutions. According to its website,

The mission of the Board of Higher Education is to ensure that Massachusetts residents have the opportunity to benefit from a higher education that enriches their lives and advances their contributions to the civic life, economic development, and social progress of the Commonwealth.

The site also states,

The Board holds [DHE] accountable for achieving its goals and establishing a comprehensive system to measure quality by defining educational achievement and success with the use of standards and measurements.

Pursuant to Section 14A of Chapter 6A of the General Laws, DHE falls within the Executive Office of Education. The administrative head of DHE is the commissioner of Higher Education. The commissioner is appointed by the members of BHE, subject to the approval of the Secretary of Education. In addition to a commissioner, DHE had 66 staff members at the end of fiscal year 2015 and 56 at the end of fiscal year 2016. DHE received state appropriations of $147,927,686 in fiscal year 2015 and $143,016,099 in fiscal year 2016.

Under the direction of BHE, DHE is responsible for executing the board’s policies for the day-to-day operations of the state’s higher education system, such as academic affairs, campus strategic planning, performance measurement, fiscal affairs, the Optional Retirement Program, and the activities of the Office of Student Financial Assistance (OSFA). DHE described these activities in an email to the Office of the State Auditor dated May 21, 2018, quoted below.

Academic Affairs

The Board of Higher Education conducts the review and approval of new academic programs at Massachusetts public colleges and universities, independent institutions chartered after 1943, and out-of-state institutions seeking to offer courses for college credit in Massachusetts.

In addition to academic program reviews, the Board of Higher Education’s Academic office designs and implements system-wide initiatives, such as the Commonwealth Honors Program, Early College, the Police Career Incentive Program and Student Transfer Compacts, in support of the agenda of the Board of Higher Education. In addition, the BHE is responsible for managing the Commonwealth’s student complaint system and provides an avenue for the informal resolution of student complaints and concerns regarding institutions of higher education in the Commonwealth.

Campus Strategic Planning

The Board of Higher Education enacts its responsibility to provide overall direction to the state’s system of public higher education by establishing statewide goals and regularly measuring and reporting progress toward these goals. Review and approval of campus strategic plans is an important aspect of this role. The Board is guided in this work by the BHE Campus Strategic Planning Committee. Campus strategic plans serve not only as a roadmap for individual campuses, but they are also part of a coherent plan for the higher education system as a whole—at both a regional and statewide level.

Performance Measurement

The Research and Planning staff of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education (DHE) works with the public institutions of higher education in Massachusetts on data collection and analysis and oversees a comprehensive, statutorily-required performance measurement system on behalf of the state universities and community colleges. The primary function of the office is to provide research, policy analysis and planning recommendations to support decision-making by the DHE, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (BHE), state government and the broader community of public higher education stakeholders. In support of this task the second primary function of the office is to ensure the quality, integrity and availability of information from the centralized Higher Education Information Resource System (HEIRS) database. The database currently contains information on: enrollment, demographics, admissions, programs/majors, course records, degree and certificate completion, and financial aid.

Fiscal Affairs

The Fiscal Affairs staff of DHE works with the public higher education campuses to ensure adherence to fiscal guidelines and reporting procedures, and to support efforts to enhance collaborating and efficiency across the system. The staff also liaisons with the [Department of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance] regarding capital planning and improvement projects, and prepares the Department’s annual fiscal year budget request.

Optional Retirement Program

The Department of Higher Education is the administrator for the Optional Retirement Program (ORP), a flexible and portable retirement plan for employees at the Commonwealth’s public institutions of higher education and the Department of Higher Education. Eligible employees may choose either the ORP or the Massachusetts State Employees’ Retirement System (MSERS) for their retirement coverage.

OSFA

OSFA is primarily responsible for the management and oversight of all state funded financial aid programs and advises the Board of Higher Education about financial aid policy matters of concern to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In addition to its financial aid responsibilities, OSFA is the principal agency for promoting access to higher education through early awareness initiatives that foster the recognition of college as a viable postsecondary option and the availability of financial aid resources to help students and families meet college costs.

OSFA is also responsible for administering the Foster Child Grant Program, the Foster Child Tuition Waiver and Fee Assistance Program, and the No Interest Loan (NIL) Program, which were the subject of our audit.

Young adults in foster care can face many social and economic challenges that are not faced by other students who attend college. For example, young adults in foster care may not have the parental support necessary to understand how to apply for college or for financial aid, or how to deal with the emotional stress that comes with attending college and maintaining good grades. Further, because some foster children can move from family to family and therefore from school district to school district, they may not be as academically prepared to go to college as their peers. Others may need supports such as year-round housing, specialized healthcare services, and various types of counseling. Nationally, some programs that are established to assist young adults in foster care who want to attend college are designed not only to provide financial assistance but also to provide a more comprehensive support network for these students to better ensure that their needs are fully met. One example of this model in Massachusetts is the Bridgewater State University (BSU) Academic Support for College and Life program, a pilot program in which BSU partnered with a nonprofit organization (the Home for Little Wanderers) and offered not only financial-aid instruction but also support services such as housing, transportation, academic support, and healthcare. A resource representative from the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) was available on campus to assist these students as well; however, DCF no longer supports this program. BSU asserted that this program model had proven effective in serving this at-risk population.

The DHE foster care programs that we examined during our audit were designed to provide only financial assistance to people in foster care. The programs are described below.

The Foster Child Grant Program

Recognizing the financial needs of foster children trying to pursue postsecondary education at colleges and universities, the Massachusetts Legislature funded the Foster Child Grant Program in 2001. According to OSFA’s website, to be eligible for a Foster Child Grant, a student must meet the following conditions:

a.) Is a permanent legal resident of Massachusetts.
b.) Is a U.S. Citizen or noncitizen eligible under Title IV [of the Higher Education Act of 1965].
c.) Was placed in the custody of the Department of Children and Families through a Care and Protection Petition.
d.) Is under the age of twenty-five (25) at the start of the academic year.
e.) Has signed a voluntary agreement with the Department of Children and Families establishing the terms and conditions for receiving such aid.
f.) Is enrolled full-time (twelve credits or its equivalent).
g.) Has applied for financial aid, using the standard Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
h.) Is in compliance with applicable law regarding Selective Service.
i.) Is not in default of any federal or state student loans for attendance at any institution or owe a refund for any previous financial aid received.
j.) Is in good standing and meets the institution’s requirements for satisfactory academic progress.

STUDENT AWARD:

The award under this program shall be as follows:

  • maximum of $6,000 per academic year for eligible students enrolled in public institutions for no more than 5 consecutive years
  • maximum of $6,000 per academic year for students enrolled in private non-profit or private for profit institutions for no more than 5 consecutive years. In all cases, funds must be awarded as “last dollar” grants, with eligibility determined after consideration of all other state, federal and institutional scholarship and grant resources. Institutions may not use the Foster Child Grant to supplant other state, federal or institutional aid previously awarded to the student. Wherever possible, institutions are encouraged to use the Foster Child Grant to reduce student education loan debt.

OSFA’s website states that the following types of institution are eligible to participate in the Foster Child Grant program:

An eligible institution shall mean a public, private, independent, for-profit, or nonprofit institution in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the continental United States authorized to offer undergraduate degrees or certificate programs. The institution must be accredited and eligible to participate in [federal programs governed by Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965].

Below is a table outlining the number of students and the amounts of disbursements for the Foster Child Grant Program by institution type during fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

 

Institution Type

Fiscal Year 2015
Number of Students

Fiscal Year 2015
Dollars

Fiscal Year 2016
Number of Students

Fiscal Year 2016
Dollars

Community Colleges

89

$132,867

78

$115,750

State Universities

81

368,794

96

468,938

University of Massachusetts

53

250,729

42

206,600

Private Massachusetts Institutions

43

203,284

39

198,900

Out-of-State Institutions

14

72,000

17

92,518

Total

280

$1,027,674

272

$1,082,706

The Foster Child Tuition Waiver and Fee Assistance Program

According to the website of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, children in state custody who are neither adopted nor returned home tend to have significant financial needs and few support systems to meet the challenges of higher education. Therefore, the Commonwealth established the Foster Child Grant Program to reduce the burden of student loans for these students.

According to OSFA’s website,

To be eligible for the [Department of Children and Families] Foster Child Tuition Waiver and Fee Assistance Program, a student must:

  • Have been in the custody of the Commonwealth for at least six months before age 18.
  • Be a U.S. Citizen or non-citizen eligible under Title IV regulations.
  • Have applied for financial aid, using the standard Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Not be in default of any federal or state Student Loans for attendance at any institution or owe a refund for any previous financial aid received.
  • Be enrolled in an undergraduate degree, certificate or short-term certificate program, or be taking non-credit courses.
  • Be maintaining satisfactory academic progress in accordance with institutional and federal standards.
  • Be twenty-four years of age or under at the start of the academic year.
  • Be a current or former foster child who was placed in the custody of the state through a Care and Protection Petition, or
  • Be a child whose guardianship was sponsored by the Department of Children and Families through age 18.
  • Not have been adopted nor returned home. . . .

Students eligible for the [Department of Children and Families] Foster Child Tuition Waiver and Fee Assistance Program are entitled to a tuition and fee waiver equal to 100% of the resident tuition rate, subject to budgetary appropriation, for eligible state-supported courses offered at the participating public higher education institution.

The website also states that, to be eligible to participate in the Foster Child Tuition Waiver and Fee Assistance Program, an institution must be “within the system of public higher education under section 5 of chapter 15A of the General Laws.” This system consists of 29 higher-education institutions: 15 community colleges, 9 state universities, and 5 University of Massachusetts campuses.

Below is a table outlining the number of students who were awarded the Foster Child Tuition Waiver and Fee Assistance Grant and the amounts disbursed during fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

Institution Type

Fiscal Year 2015
Number of Students

Fiscal Year 2015
Dollars

Fiscal Year 2016
Number of Students

Fiscal Year 2016
Dollars

Community Colleges

272

$444,626

261

$427,416

State Universities

151

989,820

156

1,070,270

University of Massachusetts

98

900,140

91

908,408

Private Massachusetts Institutions

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

Out-of-State Institutions

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

Total

521

$2,334,586

508

$2,406,094

The NIL Program

According to Section 9 of Chapter 15a of the General Laws, the NIL Program offers interest-free loans to qualifying students attending postsecondary educational institutions in Massachusetts. Initially, the NIL Program was funded by an annual appropriation from the Legislature. Currently, the program issues approximately $6 million in loans each year and operates entirely on its loan repayments, which are maintained in the NIL Trust Fund.

According to OSFA’s website,

To be eligible for a Massachusetts No Interest Loan, a student must:

  • Be a permanent legal resident of Massachusetts for one year prior to the start of the academic year for which the loan is awarded.
  • Be a U.S. Citizen or non-citizen eligible under Title IV regulations.
  • Have applied for financial aid, using the standard Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Be in compliance with Selective Service Registration.
  • Not be in default of any federal or state Student Loans for attendance at any institution or owe a refund for any previous financial aid received.
  • Be enrolled full time (at least 12 credits or its equivalent) in a certificate, associate’s or bachelor’s degree program at an eligible institution.
  • Not have received a prior bachelor’s degree or its equivalent.
  • Be maintaining satisfactory academic progress in accordance with institutional and federal standards.
  • Demonstrate financial aid need as determined by the federal methodology need analysis criteria. . . .

The minimum initial NIL award a student can receive is $1,000, with a maximum award amount of $4,000 per academic year. NIL award amounts are determined according to financial need. A NIL eligible student has a lifetime borrowing limit of $20,000.

Students have 10 years (commencing within six months of graduation or termination of studies) to repay the loans.

According to OSFA’s website, to participate in the NIL Program, an institution must be as described below.

A state approved public, private, independent, for profit or non-profit, issuing associate’s and/or bachelor’s degrees or certificate programs. The institution must be located in Massachusetts, and have signed a Participation Agreement with the DHE’s Office of Student Financial Assistance. The institution must also be eligible to participate in federal Title IV programs and fully accredited.

Below is a table outlining the number of students who were awarded NILs and the amounts disbursed during fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

Institution Type

Fiscal Year 2015
Number of Students

Fiscal Year 2015
Dollars

Fiscal Year 2016
Number of Students

Fiscal Year 2016
Dollars

Community Colleges

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

State Universities

675

$1,168,040

798

$1,252,894

University of Massachusetts

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

Private Massachusetts Institutions

1,622

4,607,456

1,618

4,606,107

Out-of-State Institutions

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

Total

2,297

$5,775,496

2,416

$5,859,001

In addition to the Foster Child Grant Program, the Foster Child Tuition Waiver and Fee Assistance Program, and the NIL Program, DHE currently offers 7 grant programs, 4 scholarship programs, 21 tuition waiver programs, and 1 fee waiver program. The appendix of this report shows the appropriations/budgets of state-funded financial aid programs for fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

Date published: August 29, 2018
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