More than 500 colleges and universities nationwide are undergoing extra scrutiny of their financial practices from the federal Department of Education.

The federal government released the list of 556 institutions getting the extra attention for the first time after public record requests from several national and trade news organizations.

The watch program is called heightened cash monitoring. There are two levels: HCM-1 and HCM-2, with HCM-1 the lowest level. Institutions under that level of scrutiny must first disburse to students the federal loans and grant money that they are entitled to and then provide detailed information on each recipient before reimbursement.

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"Heightened cash monitoring is a step that our federal student aid office can take with institutions to provide additional oversight for a number of financial or federal compliance issues, some of which may be serious and others that may be less troublesome," Ted Mitchell, the undersecretary of education, said in a blog post on the department's website.

Mitchell said institutions may be on this list for a variety of specific reasons, such as late financial statements, outstanding liabilities, accreditation issues, concerns about financial responsibility or possibly severe findings uncovered during a program review.

"Heightened cash monitoring is not necessarily a red flag to students and taxpayers, but it can serve as a caution light," Mitchell said. "It means we are watching these institutions more closely to ensure that institutions are using federal student aid in a way that is accountable to both students and taxpayers."

"A school is placed on HCM-1 generally for financial responsibility reasons," said Denise Horn, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.

A college under such scrutiny can have restrictions placed on how it handles federal funds. The restrictions are more severe for colleges with the HCM-2 designation.