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Critical first steps when preparing for a U.S. Department of Education program review

Aaron Lacey October 23, 2014

The U.S. Department of Education has made a concerted effort in recent years to increase the number of program reviews conducted annually at both for-profit and non-profit institutions. In a prior post, we provided a short list of recommendations for those administrators likely to field the initial call from the Department should their institution be selected for a program review. Based on the positive feedback we received on that post (many thanks!), we decided to author this companion piece outlining first steps to take immediately following a program review’s announcement.

If the initial call with the Department goes as it should, following the call, your institution will have a good sense regarding the nature of the review, the locations included, the review period, and the dates for the onsite visit. With this information in hand, we suggest that you take the following steps as soon as possible:

  • Ensure that those with primary responsibility for managing the program review have on hand, and have reviewed, the Department’s "Program Review Guide for Institutions." The Guide touches on virtually every aspect of the program review process, including appeal options in the event of findings. The most recent version was published in 2009, and with attachments runs 118 pages. While select details of the Department’s protocol have changed since 2009, overall the document still provides a strong and accurate sense of the program review process, and as such, is required reading for any administrator preparing to manage a review.

  • Communicate to appropriate staff that the program review is forthcoming and ensure that all will be onsite and available during the team’s visit. This may seem trivial, but on more than one occasion we’ve worked with institutions that discover at the last minute that a key member of their team will be away during the review. It’s also important to appreciate that you will need a wide range of administrators onsite for the review. The Department considers the administration of federal financial aid programs to be an institution-wide effort. The review team will examine financial aid, academic, and fiscal records, interview institutional staff, and assess relevant consumer information disclosures (e.g., school website, student catalogs, pamphlets), among other things. As such, the review will involve not only financial aid, but the registrar, academics, admissions, finance, accounting, and campus security, to name a few. You also will want information technology personnel available to assist the Department with technical issues, to oversee Departmental access to university systems, to run reports, and, if applicable, to amend website deficiencies identified during the review.

  • Set a meeting to coordinate the production of the advance documentation required in connection with the review. Following the phone call announcing the program review, the institution should receive the official program review announcement letter. Among other things, this letter will detail the various documentation that the school must provide to the Department in advance of the visit. You also can find a discussion of the advance documentation that may be requested in the Guide. Because the advance production likely will involve personnel from multiple administrative verticals within your institution, and because the production window can be tight, it’s important to establish a production schedule — and to assign and coordinate responsibilities — as soon as possible.

  • Determine timelines for any staff training, as well as for any review or audit of websites, files, or facilities. At a minimum, every institution should seek to prepare those individuals most likely to be interviewed by the Department for the interview experience. Even where Department personnel are personable and polite, which typically is the case, staff can experience considerable anxiety during interviews. Familiarizing staff with the program review process and the range of topics that likely will be addressed can ease anxiety and significantly improve performance. Institutions with the resources to do so may also wish to audit files or facilities in advance of the on-site visit. Indeed, simply confirming that the files for all students covered by the review period are on-hand and organized can be an invaluable exercise.  

  • If you have a third-party servicer that manages some aspect of your financial aid administration, contact your servicer immediately and request that a representative be available or, if possible, onsite for the duration of the review. This is not an unusual request. To the contrary, most third-party servicers would like to know that a program review is occurring as soon as possible, and expect to be involved. Also, be sure to ask your servicer team if they are familiar with the reviewers, and to coordinate with them the production of any documents they control and that must be produced before or during the review.

  • If you have outside education counsel, notify them that you have been selected for a program review. Like your third-party servicer, outside regulatory counsel may be familiar with the specific members of the review team, or more generally, with recent activity by the regional Participation Division. Your counsel also may be aware of current “hot topics” in the area of program reviews, or be able to assist you with training and preparation.

On a final note, we stress the importance of acting quickly. As stated in the Guide, most standard program reviews are announced two to four weeks in advance of the onsite visit. Even where the time allotted is closer to four weeks, the opportunity to prepare advance documentation and to ready an institution for an onsite review is limited. And this, of course, is all the more true when taking into account all the other issues an institution is managing during any typical week. Consequently, beginning preparations for a program review as soon as possible is critical to institutional success.

Aaron Lacey is a partner in Thompson Coburn’s Higher Education practice, and editorial director of REGucation. You can find Aaron on Twitter (@HigherEdCounsel) and LinkedIn, and reach him at (314) 552-6405 or alacey@thompsoncoburn.com.