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Office of the State Auditor
Limited Scope Audit
Student Enrollment Counts
At Selected Universities
February 16, 1999
Student Enrollment Count Review
Purpose of Review
UND's Enrollment Count Practices
In February, 1998, the Office of the State Auditor received a call from an anonymous citizen about inflated student counts at the University of North Dakota (UND). A short time later, student enrollment data was received from this source. After reviewing the data, the State Auditor determined the issue should be examined either during a financial audit or the performance audit related to the University System's Personnel System. In a March 10, 1998 article, the Grand Forks Herald reported that UND was inflating its fall semester enrollment count by 3 to 5 percent. UND was counting hundreds of students who registered, but never showed up for classes. The Office of the State Auditor's final decision was to review this matter during the audit work relating to the performance audit of the North Dakota University System's personnel systems.
Scope of Review
A limited review of the process utilized to count students was conducted at three institutions ‑ Dickinson State University (DSU), North Dakota State University (NDSU), and UND. The scope of the review concentrated on determining if students who had cancelled their registration were included in the student enrollment count. The Office of the State Auditor reviewed student enrollment reports, student files, and conducted interviews with representatives of the three institutions. Also reviewed were the Fall and Spring semesters for three consecutive school years, starting with the Fall 1995 semester and ending with the Spring 1998 semester.
UND’s Enrollment Count Practices
State Board of Higher Education policy requires each institution to provide a final enrollment report following the fifteenth day of classes of each academic year registration period. This report is regarded as the official enrollment report. The generated report has been termed the "Third Week Report." Based on a limited review, UND inflated the enrollment count in Fall semesters by counting students who had registered for classes but subsequently cancelled prior to the Third Week Report being generated.
Enrollment Count Practice Identified
For Fall semesters only, UND adhered to the following enrollment count process:
Individuals who had registered for Fall semester classes and subsequently cancelled prior to the Third Week Report date, were enrolled into a one credit, "dummy" English course. UND assigned a course number (000) to this class to ensure seats in actual classes were not tied up by these "phantom students."
After the Third Week Report was generated, the "phantom students" were deleted off of the student database.
The Third Week Report generated off of Higher Education's Uniform Student Records System (USRS) and sent to the North Dakota University System (NDUS) Office was altered. Correct, numbers within the report would be "whited out" and incorrect figures would be typed in to make the reports consistent with the enrollment count total to be reported.
UND maintains an additional student database, downloaded from the mainframe, for generating additional reports and other information. This database also allowed UND to identify and. track the "phantom students."
Inflated Enrollment Counts
This review identified "phantom students" being counted on the Third Week Report for the Fall 1995 and Fall 1996 semesters. In the Fall 1995 semester, 295 "phantom students" were identified (approximately 2.6%) as being included in the reported 11,512 total student enrollment. In the Fall 1996 semester, 290 "phantom students" were identified (approximately 2.6%) as being included in the reported 11,300 total student enrollment. There were no "phantom students" identified in the Fall 1997 total student enrollment.
Based on discussions with representatives of UND, it appears the practice of counting canceled students in the Third Week Report dates back to at least the early 1980's. UND was able to provide student enrollment information, beginning with the Fall 1982 semester. This information identified the total enrollment and number of "phantom students" included in the total enrollment. The enclosed table and graph identifies enrollment information. The information prior to 1995 in the table and graph was received from UND and was not tested. The
'phantom students" incorrectly included in the total enrollment count reached a high of 485 students in 1991 (approximately 4.1 % of total enrollment) and a low of 105 in 1986 (approximately 0.95%).
The current President of UND started in the summer of 1992. At the time, the practice of counting "phantom students" appears to have been in place for at least 10 years. The President stated in the March 10, 1998, Grand Forks Herald article that he decided to "phase out" the practice of counting students who didn't show for classes. The President makes a similar comment in his written statement to the State Board of Higher Education on March 19, 1998, when he states a phasing out over time seemed more prudent. We are unaware of any steps taken to phase out this practice other than a policy change in October 1994.
Based on a review of the "phantom students" in 1992 through 1996, it does not appear a "phasing out" of the process occurred. A new policy was approved in October 1994 to count the students who canceled after August 1. However, this policy did not have a significant effect on phasing out the "phantom student" count. Prior to this policy, all students who enrolled and canceled were counted. The Fall 1995 and Fall 1996"phantom student" totals are very close to the Fall 1993 amount. No substantial "phase out" of the process appears to have occurred.
Based on our review and interviews with UND representatives, it appears the current President became aware of the practice of counting ”phantom students" in 1993 and was involved in the decision to continue the practice through the Fall 1996 semester. In addition, it appears UND's senior administration (Vice President level) during this timeframe was aware of the practice of counting "phantom students" as well. In the President's statement to the State Board of Higher Education, he gives two reasons for not ending the practice when he first learned about it:
1. This was the way in which the University had historically counted its students. Someone for some reason had regarded it as correct and changing it would clearly invalidate comparisons with the historical record.
2. UND lost 926 students between 1992 and 1995. This represented almost 7 1/2 % of total enrollment and questions were being raised about why enrollment was falling. In fact, everywhere the President went he was being asked: "What's wrong with UND? ' He was not, therefore, eager to fuel questions and worries that were being expressed by increasing the decline.
In October 27, 1995, UND's President provided information related to a self‑evaluation he conducted of the University. The President states in the fall of 1994 UND did have problems with declining enrollment. He states it became essential that the goal of enrollment stability be given the highest priority. The President states he personally assumed responsibility for oversight of student recruitment for at least the 1995‑96 year.
The Chancellor of NDUS conducted a formal performance evaluation of UND's President in 1996. In a February 14, 1996, letter from the Chancellor to UND's President, one of the four primary challenges the President faced was to "continue to explore reasons for enrollment decline and take actions to stabilize enrollment."
Effect of UND's Enrollment Count Practice
The counting of "phantom students" appears to result in noncompliance with State Board of Higher Education (SBHE) Policy 440. This policy requires official enrollment reports be provided to the Board Office. The policy provides a definition of total head count as "all students who have paid regular student fees and who are currently registered for courses in the regular time table or Board approved off campus resident programs." Since UND was counting students who had not paid tuition and were not registered for actual classes, the University was in noncompliance with this SBHE policy.
Based on interviews with budget analysts within the state, a campus' budget was generated by formulas from the mid 1980's through the 1993‑95 biennium budget process. According to budget analysts, the formulas are still utilized by NDUS, but only for comparison and benchmark purposes. The formulas utilized for generating the budget request did utilize credit hours and enrollment head count information. Based on our review, it appears there would have been an impact on UND's budget request due to an inflated enrollment count. However, based on our analysis and discussions with budget analysts, it appears the impact would have been insignificant.
An inflated enrollment count appears to have given UND public relation benefits. The inflated enrollment count was used by UND for recruiting and other promotional materials. The inflated enrollment count did not give an accurate comparison with other campuses. As UND's President stated, the University was suffering from a declining enrollment count in the first four years of his term. Ending the practice of counting "phantom students" would have resulted in an even larger decline and UND's President stated he was not eager to fuel questions and worries that were being expressed.
Based on our review, UND did inflate their Fall semester enrollment count by taking cancelled students and enrolling them into a one credit, "dummy" English course. This practice required UND to alter enrollment reports submitted to the Board Office. This process resulted in UND being in noncompliance with SBHE policy, had an insignificant impact on the formulas used to generate budget requests, and improved UND's public relations. This practice was deceptive and misled the public and other parties who relied on the enrollment counts. The practice was ended for the Fall 1997 semester.
Our review of the processes in place at DSU and NDSU indicated they did not follow similar practices as UND for enrollment counts. However, as noted below, we did discover the two universities appear to be in noncompliance with Board policy regarding enrollment counts.
Counting Non-Paying Students
S13HE Policy 440 requires an official enrollment count to be provided by institutions and defines the total head count as students who have paid regular student fees and who are currently registered for courses. Through the review performed, both DSU and NDSU appear to be in noncompliance with this policy. DSU and NDSU count students on the official enrollment count who are enrolled in classes but have not paid tuition. Representatives from each university stated the majority of these students do end up paying their tuition and this is why they are counted on the Third Week Report. UND also followed this practice until the Fall 1997 semester when they ceased counting students who had not paid tuition fees. Thus, a difference exists between UND and both DSU and NDSU for counting non‑paying students in the official enrollment count. Due to UND maintaining an additional student database, an analysis was conducted of students being counted on the Third Week Report who had not paid tuition (these were actual students and not "phantom students"). Based on our analysis, approximately 55% of these students did eventually pay their tuition. No such analysis was conducted at DSU and NDSU due to the limited functions of the Higher Education's Uniform Student Records System (USRS).
This time the Grand Forks Herald reported the University's falsification and the contents of the Auditor's report