Higher Education:

Verification Helps Prevent Student Aid Payments to Ineligible Noncitizens

HEHS-97-153: Published: Aug 6, 1997. Publicly Released: Aug 6, 1997.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO reviewed the extent to which illegal aliens are receiving postsecondary federal student financial assistance, focusing on: (1) the processes that ensure that ineligible noncitizens do not receive federal financial aid under title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965; (2) how many potentially ineligible noncitizen applicants were identified through these processes; and (3) the indications, if any, of the degree to which ineligible noncitizens are receiving student financial aid despite these processes.

GAO noted that: (1) the processes for preventing ineligible noncitizens from obtaining federal student financial aid focus on identifying applicants whose eligibility is questionable and referring their names to financial aid administrators at postsecondary institutions for follow-up; (2) no federal student financial aid can be released until the applicant provides proof of eligibility to the administrator; (3) the Department of Education's processes for verifying the citizenship status of all financial aid applicants appear to be working reasonably well, as departmental monitoring has found few implementation problems; (4) the Immigration and Naturalization Service's (INS) and Social Security Administration's (SSA) screening techniques identified over 500,000 potentially ineligible noncitizens in award year 1996-1997, but it is possible that many of them ultimately provided proof of their eligibility; (5) according to the Department, of the 9.6 million financial aid applicants in award year 1996-1997, almost 460,000, about 5 percent, initially failed SSA screening--SSA could not confirm that an applicant was a U.S. citizen--and another approximately 108,000 were flagged for followup because INS could not confirm that they were ineligible noncitizens; (6) the Department does not know how many of the flagged applicants were subsequently found ineligible, because financial aid administrators are required to neither inform the Department of the results of their followup nor centrally maintain such information themselves; (7) to shed some light on the final outcome concerning an applicant's eligibility, GAO contacted financial aid administrators at four colleges with high numbers of noncitizens in attendance; (8) they estimated that virtually all the applicants flagged through SSA and INS screening were ultimately able to demonstrate their eligibility for student aid; (9) no one knows whether or how many ineligible noncitizens are managing to qualify for student financial aid; (10) the Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has not opened any investigations of applicants who falsified their citizenship status and received aid since the SSA verification process was implemented in 1996; (11) however, OIG did, primarily in response to allegations of citizenship fraud, identify 26 cases in which ineligible noncitizens received aid between 1993 and 1995, totalling about $332,000; (12) illegal aliens constituted almost half of these recipients; and (13) the Department referred the cases to the Department of Justice for prosecution.

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