By DALE WETZEL
BISMARCK, N.D. — Dickinson State University awarded hundreds of degrees to foreign students who didn’t earn them, signed up students who couldn’t speak English and enrolled a handful without qualifying grades, according to an audit report of the North Dakota school.
The report, obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its Friday release, depicts Dickinson State as a diploma mill for foreign students where lax record-keeping was common. Most of the affected students were Chinese, the audit says.
“Several process level controls have been waived, or controls that were once in place have been intentionally overridden, or ignored,” the audit says.
The devastating report could raise questions about whether public universities, strapped for cash at a time of sharply declining state support for higher education, are cutting corners to attract foreign students who typically pay full out-of-state tuition. It also comes amid an unprecedented boom in the number of Chinese students studying at U.S. universities.
Dickinson State could face penalties from the U.S. State Department for violations of the federal student visa program, as well as sanctions from the Department of Education, the Department of Homeland Security and the Higher Learning Commission in Chicago, an accreditation agency, the report says.
William Goetz, chancellor of the North Dakota university system, and Dickinson State’s new president, D.C. Coston, did not immediately respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment. They have scheduled a news conference Friday in Dickinson to present the audit’s findings.
The AP obtained the audit report through an open records request when it was distributed to members of the state Board of Higher Education before the news conference. The report’s author, Bill Eggert, the North Dakota university system’s internal audit director, did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment Friday.
The audit examines the number of foreign students who took part since 2003 in a special program that allowed them to earn degrees both from Dickinson State and a university in their home country.
It lists 410 students who received a degree in the program and says 400 of them were missing the requisite credits or course work. Of the 410 students who received degrees, 375, or 91 percent, were awarded them from the summer semester of 2008 through the end of last year, the report said.
The report does not specify how many of those students were from China, but says about 95 percent of the students in the dual-degree program were Chinese and the rest were Russian.
At least 15 foreign students were signed up for classes even though their grades were too low to qualify, the report says.
Dickinson State passed over two English proficiency tests that are considered good measures of fluency in favor of another that was not. Out of 27 Chinese students this spring, 21 “could not speak English at the required competency level, (and) thus were sent back home,” the report says.
Many students did not have required documents such as English proficiency tests and bank statements, and some apparently fabricated course transcripts and Chinese university stamps that Dickinson State officials subsequently accepted.
“The student will change their transcript, stamp it official and submit it as an official transcript,” the audit says. “The student can put any class or grade on their transcript they desire.”
Completing the dual degrees typically required students to begin coursework at universities in their home countries then attend Dickinson State, usually for a year, before returning to their home schools to finish their degrees.
The audit says Dickinson State did not get “completion transcripts” from the students’ home universities but awarded them degrees anyway, meaning they received bachelor’s degrees at Dickinson State for only two semesters’ work.
Dickinson State had 127 agreements to work with international schools to grant degrees to their students. They were stashed at various offices around campus and were not forwarded to a central state university system office as required, the report says.
Only four of the 127 agreements had the detailed plans required to be recognized as valid.
China is a leading exporter of college students to the United States, according to the Institute of International Education.
During the 2010-11 academic year, the latest for which figures are available, 157,558 Chinese students were studying in the U.S., an increase of almost 24 percent on the previous year. The number of Chinese students in the United States has risen by at least 19.8 percent for each of the past four years.
Coston’s predecessor, Richard McCallum, was fired by the Board of Higher Education last December for allegedly padding Dickinson State’s enrollment totals in the fall of 2010.
The report does not mention McCallum, but the number of questionable degrees granted to foreign students began to rise in the summer of 2008, the audit says. McCallum was named the school’s president in April 2008.
McCallum was suspended from his job last August and a state administrative law judge concluded his dismissal was justified. The Board of Higher Education fired him in December.
The case against McCallum did not mention foreign student degree programs but criticized the university for counting students who signed up for brief seminars as full-time students, thereby including them in the university’s enrollment tally.