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Department of Education: Staffing Levels Have Generally Decreased Over Time, while Contracting Levels Have Remained Relatively Stable

GAO-17-669R Published: Jun 12, 2017. Publicly Released: Jul 12, 2017.
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What GAO Found

Since the early 1980s, when the Department of Education (Education) began operations, overall staffing levels at Education have declined from a high of 6,391 FTEs in fiscal year 1981 to 4,077 FTEs in fiscal year 2015 (the most recent available data at the time we did our work). At the same time, staffing levels in the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), which manages the federal student loan portfolio, have generally increased. Approximately one-third of Education's total FTEs in fiscal year 2015 were allocated to FSA. Changes in the federal student loan programs that occurred from 2008-2010 were key factors affecting the increased FTE levels at FSA, according to Education officials.

Throughout the history of the department, contracting has represented approximately 1 to 2 percent of its annual obligations. Similar to the distribution of FTEs, a significant portion of Education's contracts are related to FSA. FSA contracts with private loan servicers to handle billing and other tasks such as responding to borrowers' questions for the Direct Loan Program. According to Education officials, total obligations for FSA contracts in a given year are affected by program operations and the economy.

GAO also reviewed trends in the creation of new offices at education and found that about half of the key offices currently in existence were created when the Department began operations. Of the 11 key offices added since 1980, 6 were created by presidential executive order, 4 were created by statute, and 1 was created by Departmental leadership. GAO is not making any recommendations in this report.

Why GAO Did This Study

Education plays a key role in supporting educational opportunities for students from kindergarten through postsecondary education, managing approximately $111 billion in funding during fiscal year 2015. This includes distributing grants to states and localities and overseeing compliance with federal education laws. It also includes managing federal student aid programs for students attending institutions of higher education. GAO was asked to review trends in the Departments’ staffing levels, use of contracting, and organizational structure.

To complete this work, GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, education regulations, executive orders, and organizational charts from Education that pertain to the staffing and organizational structure at Education. GAO also reviewed previous GAO reports and spoke with Education officials involved with budgeting and management.  To describe trends in FTEs and contracting, GAO analyzed data from the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) MAX database. Our analysis focused on obligations and contracting authorities provided to the Department of Education. According to Education officials, FSA receives funding for its debt collection contracts from the Department of the Treasury as a portion of successful collections; these amounts are not included in our analysis because they are not reflected in Education’s OMB MAX data.



GAO is not making any recommendations in this report.

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