NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin today released an audit that found abuse in a NASA program that reimburses Agency employees for academic courses leading to undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate degrees. This Office of Inspector General (OIG) review concluded that NASA's decentralized management structure, coupled with a lack of strong internal controls, resulted in more than $1 million in questionable tuition payments to employees.
Federal law prohibits NASA from funding academic degrees for civil service employees except through planned employee development programs that meet an identified training need, resolve a staffing problem, or accomplish the Agency's strategic goals. However, the OIG found that NASA routinely paid significant amounts of money to reimburse employees for academic courses taken outside its formal degree programs.
For example, the OIG identified 57 employees at Headquarters and at four NASA Centers - Goddard Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Flight Center, and Langley Research Center - who are either pursuing or who have obtained academic degrees outside of NASA's established degree programs at a cost of $1.4 million. For 18 of those 57 employees, NASA paid over $30,000 per employee for academic courses, with one employee receiving more than $60,000.
Because it was unclear what benefit NASA received for its $1.4 million investment in academic courses for these employees, the OIG questioned the Agency's expenditure of these funds. Moreover, because this $1.4 million represents tuition payments for only a sample of employees at the four Centers and Headquarters where we conducted detailed audit work, we concluded that an examination across all NASA Centers likely would result in substantially higher questioned costs.
Examples of the types of degrees employees pursued outside of NASA's formal programs included:
. A secretary at Headquarters pursued a bachelor's degree in business administration at Strayer University at a cost to NASA of $37,025. Unlike some NASA Centers, NASA Headquarters has no formal program under which Headquarters-based employees can be reimbursed for pursuing an undergraduate degree.
. A secretary at Johnson Space Center pursued a bachelor's degree in business administration at the University of Phoenix at a cost to NASA of $13,770. Similar to NASA Headquarters, Johnson has no formal undergraduate degree programs.
. A program analyst at Kennedy obtained a master's degree in human resources management at Webster University at a cost to NASA of $15,705.
Employees who pursue degrees outside of NASA's established degree programs are not subject to the stringent application requirements at the front end or a service commitment at the back end that NASA requires in its formal degree programs. More specifically, employees in NASA's formal programs are generally required to sign a commitment obligating them to remain with the Agency for at least 1 year after obtaining an undergraduate degree paid for by NASA and 3 years after obtaining a graduate degree.
The OIG review identified two employees who were reimbursed after attending 16 academic courses outside of a formal NASA program and left the Agency within 6 months of completing their last course. One employee at Kennedy transferred to another Federal agency after attending 10 courses at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University over a 2-year period at a cost to NASA of approximately $10,000. Another employee at Johnson resigned from the Government after attending six courses at Capella University over a 1-year period at a cost to NASA of approximately $12,000. These courses consisted of the core requirements for a doctorate degree in leadership.
Overall, the OIG found that NASA's management of its academic training program needs significant improvement. In addition to allowing employees to circumvent its formal degree programs, we found that the Agency has not structured its academic training program to encourage cost savings. Specifically, NASA does not cap tuition rates or establish annual tuition reimbursement limits per employee. Accordingly, employees have little incentive to attend less expensive schools that would meet their educational needs. The OIG found that 11 of the top 20 universities NASA employees attended were private or for-profit institutions that are on average 3.6 times and 1.6 times, respectively, more expensive than public universities. In addition, NASA has not consistently leveraged its buying power to obtain discounts on tuition at frequently attended institutions.
Finally, the OIG identified internal control weaknesses under which NASA reimbursed employees for academic training even though the Agency did not have evidence of course completion. Based on our statistical projections, we estimate that NASA paid $892,490 in tuition costs without proper supporting documentation. We also found that NASA accepts documentation such as Internet screen captures and unofficial transcripts as evidence of course completion - documentation that can easily be manipulated.
We made six recommendations to NASA to strengthen its policies for its academic training program, including ensuring that employees only obtain academic degrees at Agency expense through established programs, limiting payment of academic tuition per credit hour, implementing a cap on the total amount that may be reimbursed to an employee during any given year, and developing a mechanism to leverage the size of NASA's civil service and contractor workforce to negotiate discounted tuition rates.
NASA concurred with most of our recommendations, but took exception to limiting the amount of money it will pay for academic training or the amount it will reimburse per academic credit.
The full report can be found on the OIG's website at http://oig.nasa.gov/ under "Reading Room" or at the following link: http://oig.nasa.gov/audits/reports/FY11/IG-11-023.pdf