Audit: Ga. Regents unclear on whether tuition waivers achieving goals

The state’s Board of Regents has made some improvements in handling out-of-state tuition waivers for Georgia’s public colleges since a state audit reviewed its policies in 2013. Despite those improvements, auditors say the Board has not determined whether those waivers — which offer thousands of dollars in tuition savings for some students — are achieving their intended purpose.

Out-of-state waivers allow students who are not Georgia residents to pay tuition at one of the state’s public colleges and universities at the much lower rate state residents pay. The difference in the out-of-state and in-state rates ranges from about $4,000 to $10,000 per semester, depending on the school.

Regents say the waivers are used to attract the best students, increase enrollment and encourage economic development, but state auditors found they have not studied whether the waivers have delivered on those efforts.

The finding comes in a follow-up report the state audit department released this week. The review follows a December 2013 state audit conducted to answer questions from the state Senate Appropriations Committee about the waivers.

That initial audit found that the Board of Regents, which governs the University System, lacked reliable out-of-state tuition data and clear guidelines for approving discretionary waivers, and that grade-point averages and test scores showed some students receiving academic waivers were not at the “highly qualified” level required for eligibility.

Following that audit, the Regents began work on their waiver policies, including streamlining the program and reducing the number of waiver categories from 17 to eight. Regents also capped the number of waivers available for athletics and strengthened its rules on discretionary waivers.

In the December 2013 report, auditors found that the University System awarded more than 22,000 out-of-state waivers valued at $106 million during the 2012-2013 school year. They estimate the amount spent on waivers has increased to more than $130 million for the 2015-2016 school year.

In its response to the latest review, the Board of Regents noted that much of the increase in waivers has been at schools with declining or flat enrollment from fall 2012 to 2015. Eleven schools were approved for a new “border state” waiver that allows students in states bordering Georgia to enroll in those 11 Georgia colleges at the cheaper in-state tuition rate. The provision had previously been limited to students living in counties along the border.

Following the 2013 audit, the Board indicated it may conduct a systemwide waiver audit for all of its 29 institutions, but the follow-up report noted that is not currently on the Regents 18-month rolling audit plan.

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