U.S. Education Department hits the Vegas Strip

This week at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, the U.S. Department of Education spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to host a conference on federal student aid programs, spurning a call from a Republican Senator to cancel the 2013 Federal Student Aid conference as a way to save money in the face of automatic budget cuts from sequestration.

The gathering drew a visit by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who told the Vegas conference that the existing financial aid system, "does not encourage students to stay in and complete school."

"Great to spend time yesterday with 6,000+ financial aid administrators," Duncan wrote on Twitter about his trip.

The over 6,000 financial aid administrators at the Las Vegas conference were not federal employees - it is very important to note that - as this Federal Student Aid conference was aimed mainly at training for financial aid workers from schools around the nation, with a much smaller number of feds helping in what's described as "an instructional or support capacity."

But it still costs Uncle Sam a chunk of money to host this gathering and bring some employees out to Vegas for the conference.

Back in July, the Education Department told me the 2011 FSA training conference at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas cost the feds $1.6 million, while the 2012 conference held at the Peabody Hotel in Orlando clocked in at over $970,000.

That means both of those Education Department conferences - even with limited attendance by federal workers - cost taxpayers more than the $823,000 spent on a 2010 Las Vegas conference held by the General Services Administration, news of which sparked outrage in the Congress several years ago.

"For 2013, Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, NV was identified as the location providing the best value to the federal government when considering services (meeting room space, sleeping rooms, local transportation costs, etc.) and price," an Education Department spokesman told me via email earlier this year.

"We have cut back conferences already," he added.

While I couldn't get to The Strip to check out the Education Department gathering, thanks to social media, it was pretty easy to keep tabs on this year's conference in Las Vegas.

Some examples of what I found on Twitter:

"Called my hubby b4 the general session and he said "sounds more like a party than a boring conference w/all that music playing!"" one woman wrote.

"I think hard working FSA peeps have earned late night libations. any takers for another tweeter meet up tonight around 10?" another tweeted.

"Sitting at the Burger Bar fueling up for the 150% Loan Limits session," said one attendee.

"DJ in the general session ballroom is dropping some serious beats, y'all!" wrote another.

"5pm happy hour may have been a bit ambitious. On my way, though!" tweeted one with a photo of the Ri Ra Irish Pub.

On the serious side of things, social media also made clear how much work was going on as financial aid workers dealt with all sorts of issues impacting college loans, loan verification requirements, new rules on how to deal with student loan applications, and other items like the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage.

"FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) will now have Parent 1 and Parent 2," explained one person at the conference, one of many breakout sessions for those attending.

One presenter used a fictional school in examples about student loan work, the Walter T. Franklin University - WTFU - which drew laughs from some of those in the session.

"New regs should be 140 characters or less," another person observed.

In his Las Vegas speech to the FSA conference, Education Secretary Duncan announced a new online financial aid toolkit on student loan applications, described as a "new one-stop shop for guidance counselors & college advisers."

The new website includes an online training section - just in case you can't attend one of the FSA conferences in person.

Six months ago, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the details on the costs for the last two FSA conferences, along with the numbers of Education Department employees who attended, but no FOIA report has yet been returned to me as yet.

Also not getting any answers on the FSA gatherings is Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who who in July asked the Education Department for details on the costs of all agency conferences for the rest of 2013, and how much a 2013 bus tour by Secretary Duncan was costing taxpayers.

"We have yet to receive a response," said a spokesman for Coburn this week.

In July, Coburn urged the Education Department to scrap its conference schedule this year to deal with sequestration; Secretary Duncan has routinely blasted those spending reductions in recent months, saying it will only mean "cuts" in education programs.

"Cuts to programs like Head Start; cuts to schools serving military families and Native American students; cuts to programs serving low-income students and those with disabilities," Duncan said in a speech earlier this year.

Some attendees at the Vegas conference also had budget issues on their mind.

"I think Congress should go through a financial literacy program, they can't seem to spend less than they bring in," one attendee tweeted.

As for where the 2015 FSA conference will be - "hoping for Nashville or Orlando," was the sentiment of one of those on Twitter from the Mandalay Bay.

Maybe by then we will have a breakdown on the costs of the last few FSA gatherings.

Stay tuned.

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