Any college that is eligible to receive federal financial aid has already entered into a statutorily required contract—called a program participation agreement, or PPA—with the U.S. Department of Education. The PPA—which expires every few years and must be renewed to maintain eligibility—describes the school’s responsibilities to students and taxpayers. Further, when a school hits certain triggers, such as a tenuous financial situation or a change of ownership, the Department of Education may require a temporary or provisional agreement instead of a regular PPA, sometimes with special requirements or limitations. In some cases, a provisional status is automatic, such as when a school is new to the federal aid program.

The role and importance of these contracts is explained in a recent TCF report, “Predatory Colleges Think They Are Too Flawed to Fail. Biden’s Department of Education Should Prove Them Wrong.” The report describes the various types of PPAs and recommends that the Department of Education make more aggressive use of them to protect consumers.

One challenge for consumer advocates and the media has been the difficulty in figuring out the current type or status of a school’s contract. Is the school bound by a regular PPA, or some type of alternative PPA? If the latter, why? When does the current agreement expire? This last question is important because the expiration and renewal process is a good moment to reassess whether an institution can still be relied upon to serve students well enough to continue taking federal aid.

The basic answers to those questions have long been technically available to the public, but as a practical matter the information has been hidden. The publicly posted “data extracts” of the agency’s internal Postsecondary Education Participants System, or PEPS, are opaque and meaningless to all but the most skilled data experts, requiring advanced processing skills to view the records in a user-friendly way.

To make the PEPS information more easily available to anyone, TCF enlisted a data specialist to build a bot to analyze the data extracts and make the most useful information available. The resulting tool, available now, is Peppy the PEPS Bot.

TCF intends to keep Peppy fed with data at least until April 2022. Our hope is that by then the Department of Education can respond to the call for greater transparency across the various aspects of its oversight of colleges and universities. (To make that easier for the department, TCF has offered to make Peppy the PEPS Bot available to the agency for free.)

Meet Peppy the PEPs Bot

See up-to-date information on how the U.S. Department of Education views every college’s obligations to students and taxpayers. 

Peppy regularly downloads and categorizes the data extracts posted by the Department of Education. The page is designed to allow the user to examine the PEPS data in various ways: by school name(s), by categories of schools, by timing of changes, and by a combination of those options.

Search by school name (or OPEID). The most common use of Peppy is likely to be to check the status of a particular school or a few schools. That’s easy. Enter the school’s name in the “School Name Lookup” box. It should auto-fill with various options (it is case sensitive so capitalize as appropriate). When you find the school or schools you want to know about, click on them to add them to the box. When you have your selections, click on the blue “Apply changes” box. The results will show up in the actions list below.

Screenshot of PEPS Bot available here.

Examine categories. The bot also allows you to create a list of schools that meet particular characteristics, including: by sector, by the type of current certification, and/or by type of action taken by the Department of Education with respect to the school’s status.

Screenshot of PEPS Bot available here.

Identify colleges in limbo. Peppy also highlights a peculiarity in the Department of Education’s use of PPAs: schools that continue to be marked in the data as approved to operate and (presumably) receive federal aid but continue receiving federal aid despite operating with an expired PPA. Dubbed “zombie schools” in TCF’s recent report about PPAs, these are sometimes simply backlogs of expired PPAs that are awaiting action, but often institutions that are in zombie status for a long time have unresolved issues in meeting the Department of Education’s eligibility requirements. Peppy shows that, of the 485 schools in zombie status as of January 6, 2022, 44 percent of them are for-profit schools, 24 percent are nonprofit, 14 percent are foreign institutions, and 18 percent are domestic public colleges.

See recent changes in status. The “Recent Changes” section lists the most recent changes in a school’s status at the top. Usually these are renewals, but sometimes a school might have a change in ownership or become provisionally certified due to financial or other difficulties.

Screenshot of PEPS Bot available here.

Peppy is intended to improve public access to PPA-related information in the PEPS database. While this look-up tool captures most changes that have occurred during 2021, the Department of Education currently provides only a snapshot of data reflecting a given school’s status during a given week. However, the departement could, and should, provide a broader set of data that tracks a school’s PPA terms over time.

By providing public access to the Department of Education’s data, Peppy will help student advocates, oversight agencies, researchers, and others track schools’ certification status and identify schools that are undergoing transitions such as changes in ownership or in department recognition status. Peppy will also make it easier to identify troubled schools that continue to obtain federal funding, despite long-term failures to meet eligibility requirements.