GAO: OPM Needs To Work With CHCO’s To Better Administer Student Loan Repayment Program

OPM should work with the CHCO Council to determine more efficient ways to administer the federal student loan program and to measure its results, GAO said.

The Office of Personnel Management should work with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council to determine more efficient ways to administer the federal student loan program and to measure its results, according to government auditors.

While agencies have generally agreed that having student loan repayment program is a useful retention tool, officials described the program as time consuming and cumbersome to operate. They suggested that more automation and consolidation of program activities would make the program more effective.

As federal workers retire in greater numbers, agencies will need to recruit and retain a new wave of talented individuals. Agencies need to determine if the federal student loan repayment (SLR) program is one of the best ways to make maximum use of available funds to attract and keep this key talent. The Governmant Accountability Office was asked to identify (1) why agencies use or are not using the program; (2) how agencies are implementing the SLR program; and (3) what results and suggestions agency officials could provide about the program and how they view OPM’s role in facilitating its use. Ten agencies were selected to provide illustrative examples of why and how agencies decided to use or chose not to use the program.

The largest users among GAO’s 10 selected executive branch agencies primarily employed their SLR programs as broad-based retention tools aimed at keeping more recently hired employees with the knowledge and skills critical to their agencies. Officials at these agencies said the program also has an indirect positive effect on their recruitment efforts because job candidates are aware of the benefit and find the incentive attractive. Other agencies used the program as a recruitment and retention tool on a case-by-case basis, offering repayments to highly qualified individuals in occupations where the labor market is competitive.

Officials also suggested ways to make the program more effective. Since the SLR program is relatively new, agencies did not yet have comprehensive data to assess the program’s impact, although they will need to establish a baseline of measures now for future assessments of the program. Currently, anecdotal evidence indicates that employees value the program, and agency officials believe the incentive will become more attractive to agencies once administrative problems are reduced.

OPM has taken a number of steps to provide agencies with information and guidance on implementing the program, GAO stated. Human capital officials recognized OPM’s efforts, but felt they could use more assistance on the technical aspects of operating the program, more coordination in sharing lessons learned in implementing it, and help consolidating some of the program processes. OPM and the CHCO Council have an important role in assisting agencies with implementing their SLR programs. They may also be able to help agencies assess their own program results as well as develop a common set of metrics to provide information to Congress on the impact of the SLR program government-wide.