EXCLUSIVE: UH short-changed some students on aid, audit says

EXCLUSIVE: UH short-changed some students on aid, audit says

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A University of Hawaii audit found that UH short-changed students on two campuses out of financial aid, mistakes that UH officials said were later corrected.

Approximately 17,259 students on UH's 10 campuses across the state receive more than $61 million a year in Pell grants, financial aid that helps pay for their tuition, books and other expenses.

As the spring semester classes at Leeward Community College got under way Monday, Hawaii News Now easily found students such as Shalane Nakamura of Waipio, who said without Pell grants, she wouldn't have been able to attend her first day of college this week.

"It would mean I wouldn't be in school right now," Nakamura said.

Dave Townley, 51, of Haleiwa, an LCC liberal arts student in his sixth semester, said the same thing about his Pell grant.

"I wouldn't have been able to go to school without it.  I don't think I would have even thought about going to school.  I thought maybe I was too old and I didn't even know it was possible," Townley said.

Townley lost his job in the restaurant industry two years ago and now hopes to become either a police officer or a teacher.

A UH audit found in 2011, Leeward Community College short-changed two of ten students auditors spot-checked and didn't pay the two a combined $1,282 in Pell grants for which they qualified.

LCC officials said they dealt with a nearly 30 percent increase in financial aid on their campus that year, with more than 2,400 student aid recipients on that campus alone.

The same audit double-checked financial aid at Kauai Community College and found three of ten students were short-changed in Pell grants for a total of $2,479 in 2011.

"Given the complexities of financial aid rules and the large and increasing number of students being served by our financial aid offices, occasional mistakes occur," the UH said in a written statement.

UH said the students were short-changed because of a programming problem with its Banner student information system.  Once the problem was discovered, its financial aid office made adjustments to ensure each student received the proper amount of aid, a UH spokeswoman said.

Back at LCC, first-year student Vinney Gotosky of Ewa Beach had this reaction to the under payments: "To me, it's not really surprising.  But I think they're doing the best they can, humanly, to, you know what I mean?"

"We work hard to minimize and correct errors and to refine our systems for greater accuracy.  We appreciate the auditors' findings to assist us in that process," the UH statement said. "The UH system office is working on centralizing certain financial aid functions to enable the front-line staff to spend more time with students for the sake of consistency and accuracy."

The audit, conducted by Accuity LLP, an accounting firm, recommended "that the institution implement preventative and detective control procedures to ensure that correct Pell disbursements are made with manual adjustments to the student's package."

The findings came a year after the previous 2010 audit recommended new control procedures "to ensure that correct Pell based budgets are set up in Banner (the student information system)," that apparently caused the problems in 2011.

The Pell grant program is named after U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-Rhode Island) and was originally known as the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, enacted in 1965.  For the 2011-2012 school year, the maximum award amount was $5,550.

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