Head Start:

Better Data and Processes Needed to Monitor Underenrollment

GAO-04-17: Published: Dec 4, 2003. Publicly Released: Dec 4, 2003.

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Cornelia M. Ashby
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Head Start, created in 1965, is designed to prepare low-income preschool children for school by providing a comprehensive set of early child development services primarily through communitybased organizations. Over the last decade there have been a number of changes in Head Start's operating environment, including a decrease in the number of poor children; an increase in the number, size, and scope of other federal and state early childhood programs; and an expansion in Head Start spending and enrollment. Given this environment, GAO was asked to determine (1) what is known about the extent to which Head Start programs are underenrolled, (2) ACF regional officials' and Head Start grantees' views on what factors contribute to underenrollment, and (3) what actions ACF and grantees have taken to address underenrollment.

The extent to which Head Start programs have enrolled fewer children than they are funded to serve is unknown because the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) does not collect accurate national data and does not monitor underenrollment in a uniform or timely manner. While some modest fluctuations in enrollment are to be expected, regional offices had differing definitions of unacceptable underenrollment, and the approaches they used to identify it were either not timely or not systematic. The regional offices identified a total of about 7 percent of grantees as unacceptably underenrolled in 2001-02, significantly less than the percentage of grantees reporting enrollment ratios below 100 and 95 percent on ACF's survey of grantees. As a result of differences in regional definitions of what constitutes an unacceptable level of underenrollment, grantees with similar levels of underenrollment may be treated differently across regions. ACF regional officials and officials of underenrolled Head Start grantees often cited a mixture of factors that made it difficult to achieve full enrollment, including increased parental demand for full-day child care, a decrease in the number of eligible children, facilities-related problems, and more parents seeking openings with other sponsors of early education and care. ACF national and regional offices and grantees all report taking action to address underenrollment through the issuance of guidance, increased monitoring by regional offices, and more aggressive outreach attempts by grantees. The ACF national office issued a memo in April 2003 that instructed regional offices to address underenrollment with a variety of measures depending on its causes. While this guidance was clear on the actions to be taken, it lacked clear criteria for prioritizing grantees for corrective actions. Also, while many grantees we spoke with had taken steps to address underenrollment, some told us of their concern to maintain total funded enrollment levels, even as they were converting unfilled part-day openings to full-day. While 18 of the 25 grantees we contacted had made progress toward full enrollment, others cited continuing problems.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: An additional measure of total services (e.g., child hours or child days of service) could improve HHS' ability to compare the efficiency of grantees offering different mixes of full- and part-day and full- and part-year services. ACF has announced no plans to institute such a measure, indicating that information grantees provide on program options is sufficient. However, among those grantees seeking reductions in the level of funded enrollment, HHS addressed similar efficiency concerns by instructing the grantee to first review (and expect that ACF would review) whether the grantee is offering sufficient numbers of program hours, including full-day services, to meet community needs.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of HHS direct ACF to develop an additional measure of aggregate services other than total enrollment that takes into consideration the different levels of service provided by full-day and part-day programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Following issuance of our report, HHS issued a program instruction (ACYF-PI-HS-04-03) that underscored the need to maintain full enrollment and indicated that regions should work with grantees who self-identified as underenrolled to develop a strategy for reaching full enrollment. This instruction emphasized the Office's concern that grantees maintain full enrollment, but did not specify criteria that regions would use to categorize underenrollment as an issue for monitoring or corrective action. However, in FY07, the Department fielded a web-based tool for collecting monthly enrollment data that requires all grantees to provide narrative explanation for reported enrollment rates below 90% of funded levels.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of HHS direct ACF to develop a standard criterion for regional offices to use in identifying grantees whose underenrollment merits monitoring or corrective actions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Following our report, HHS commissioned a study to assess, in part, the accuracy of the enrollment information collected through its annual survey of grantees. The study has been completed and HHS is currently reviewing the contractor's recommendations. The contractor found that statistics reported by individual programs were frequently inaccurate and might be unreliable for program monitoring or risk assessment purposes. HHS subsequently implemented an end-of-month enrollment reporting system and provided more systematic instruction to triennial review teams regarding assessing enrollment.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of HHS direct ACF to take steps to ensure the accuracy of enrollment data reported in its annual nationwide survey of grantees.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Agency has replaced its survey-based reports with a web-based enrollment reporting system through which grantees are to input end-of-month enrollment data that are then available in real time to regional and headquarters staff. This new system provides current data on enrollment at several points during the year, offering advantages over the retrospective reports for selected months formerly gathered through Head Start's national survey of grantees. The new system represents potential improvements in the timeliness, coverage, and availability of enrollment data. Additionally, the FY08 triennial review process now includes more systematic instructions to reviewers regarding assessing grantees' ability to meet funded enrollment.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of HHS direct ACF to work with regional offices to develop a more systematic process for them to collect reliable enrollment data during the program year so that they can address underenrollment more quickly.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


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