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FAREWELL TO PHANTOM STUDENTS

For nearly two decades, UND inflated its fall enrollment by 3 percent to 5 percent by counting hundreds of students who registered but never showed up for class.

President Kendall Baker says that in the interests of more accurate reporting, UND put an end to the practice at the start of the current academic year.

State Auditor Robert R. Peterson says he plans to have members of his staff review UND's enrollment records later this year.

The Herald learned that Peterson and a small number of other state officials or legislators had been contacted recently by Lana Rakow, a UND professor who was dismissed in July 1996 as director of the School of Communication. Rakow said she was concerned about the possibility that students who canceled classes after her dismissal may have been kept on UND's fall enrollment count.

LONG TIME COMING

After being questioned by the Herald, UND officials admitted that students who had withdrawn or canceled were included in fall enrollments for nearly two decades.

The practice was university-wide, President Kendall Baker acknowledged. He said he made the decision to end the practice soon after he took over from retired President Tom Clifford in 1992. Baker said he decided to phase out the practice of counting students who didn't show for classes and students who didn't pay on time. It took Baker five years to make the change.

Admissions personnel at most of the state-run campuses say they do not count students who don't show up for class in their fall enrollments.

Chancellor Larry Isaak has heard reports that some may have counted no-shows in the past, but he says he doesn't know exactly how each of the 11 state-run campuses figures enrollments.

We can't be looking over everybody's shoulder all the time, he says.

During the past decade at UND, the numbers of cancellations that were included on official third-week enrollment reports ranged from 250 to nearly 500 students.

They were, in effect, phantom students who no longer were registered or had not paid their tuition and fees.

UND even assigned them one-hour credits - apparently as part of the university's accounting of academic time - before taking them off the books later in the fall, according to campus officials.

Registrar Alice Poehls said the practice dated to at least the early 1980s, during the administration of then-President Clifford, and was used campuswide - and not in any specific college.

Clifford, contacted at his home Monday night, said, I just let the registrars do what registrars do. Knowing the integrity of our registrars, including the current one, I don't think we were violating any rules. We weren't trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes.

He added that state dollars were apportioned not on the basis of headcounts, but on F.T.E.'s, or full-time equivalents.

Even so, Poehls recommended changing UND's way of counting heads soon after she took over as registrar in 1993. Baker said he decided to do it in phases. He explained that because UND enrollments were dropping, he didn't want to make the decreases appear more dramatic than they were.

He said the flooding in April 1997 gave UND the opportunity to eliminate the enrollment practice, because students numbers took a natural dive.

A true picture

Baker and other campus presidents in the state also had been urged the previous fall by Chancellor Isaak of the state university system office in Bismarck to be careful how they were counting students.

In a Nov. 14, 1996, memo, Isaak said his office had been informed that some campuses were including students who had not shown up for class in the official enrollment counts that are taken the third week of each semester. They are used for state and federal reporting purposes.

Without naming campuses, Isaak said the practices in question could lead to inconsistencies in university system reports and could involve a significant number of students.

Asked last weekend when he learned of UND's enrollment inflation, Isaak said it could have been two months or several months ago. He said UND administrators informed him they were ending the practice last fall.

Up until last year, students might have signed up for UND classes in July, for example, then notified the university in August they would not be coming for the fall semester. But UND's office of admission and records still kept them on the books in September and October.

By shoring up its enrollments this way, UND stood to gain public relations and financial advantages.

But, as campus leaders now point out, there's no way now to ascertain how many state or federal dollars the campus may have attracted by showing higher enrollments than it actually had

State Board of Higher Education policy has a definition of total head count, for the purposes of final enrollment reporting on the 15th day of each academic-year registration period. The board says the total includes all students who have paid regular student fees and who are currently registered for courses in the regular timetable or board-approved off-campus resident programs.

North Dakota State University in Fargo has been keeping canceled students on its fall enrollment counts to give them extra time to pay fees, and that, too, inflates the figures. But NDSU has not been counting students who have withdrawn before the annual enrollment census, according to NDSU registrar Alberta Dobry.

She said keeping the no-shows on the books would be misleading and tie up class seats sought by students who wanted to get into a course, but couldn't find room.

The practices at UND apparently never caught the eye of state or federal auditors or the university system administrators in Bismarck.

UND saved class space and devoted some resources to preparing for such students, President Baker said.

Arguably, it's one way of counting students. But we decided we were uncomfortable with that method.

The practice

Registrar Poehls said the practice at UND dated back to at least 1983, when the state higher education computing system was installed. Baker said some campus personnel think the practice of including withdrawals in the head counts went back to the 1970s.

In any event, the practice became a fixture in UND record-keeping. Through most of retired President Clifford's long tenure and then through most of Baker's administration, UND used the inflated enrollments for:

Recruiting and other promotional materials.

Comparing head counts with other campuses in official state reports used widely by the news media and other organizations.

Better positioning the campus for legislative appropriations of state tax dollars and tuition revenue.

UND Budget Director Alice Brekke noted that state appropriations for faculty salaries are not tied to the fall enrollments as closely as they once were. She said that for about six years, state appropriations have been tied more to the needs of campuses than to formulas based on enrollment.

Registrar Poehls said that as far as she could tell, the only advantage for having inflated the enrollment was to enhance the image of UND during the fall, when there was a lot of public attention on headcounts.

Source: Grand Forks Herald, March 10, 1998

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