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Audit: ND university awarded unearned degrees

By Dale Wetzel

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 10 2012 3:55 p.m. MST

BISMARCK, N.D. — Facing pressure to bring in more students as North Dakota's booming oil industry made it tougher to coax new high school graduates into college, Dickinson State University began looking overseas to boost its enrollment.

China, which sends more students to U.S. universities than any other nation, became one of the school's more reliable suppliers of young people.

But as an audit made public Friday revealed, lax recordkeeping and oversight resulted in hundreds of degrees being awarded to students who didn't finish their course work. Others enrolled who couldn't speak English or hadn't achieved the "C'' average normally required for admission.

The report depicts Dickinson State as a diploma mill for foreign students, most of whom were Chinese. Of 410 foreign students who have received four-year degrees since 2003 — most of them in the past four years — 400 did not fulfill all the graduation requirements, it said.

The report raises 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 said.

William Goetz, chancellor of the North Dakota university system, and Dickinson State's new president, D.C. Coston, did not respond to emails and phone calls from The Associated Press. They held a news conference Friday in Dickinson to present the audit's findings.

"We will be telling (the affected students) that their records do not indicate they sufficiently completed the requirements," Coston said at the news conference. "Dickinson State stands ready to work with them individually to figure out what might be necessary for them to reach a point of completion."

Coston also held a meeting with students that was interrupted by a university lockdown after a professor was reported missing with a gun. Doug LaPlante, 59, was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound Friday afternoon near a Dickinson intersection, police said.

The audit did not mention LaPlante, but it said some affected students were business students. LaPlante was dean of Dickinson State's college of education, business and applied sciences.

The AP obtained the report through an open records request when it was distributed to members of the state Board of Higher Education before the news conference.

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.

Only 10 of the 410 students who received degrees through the program completed all their course work and requirements, it said. About 95 percent of the students in the dual-degree program were Chinese, it said. 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 said.

In determining foreign students' fluency in English, Dickinson State ignored two English proficiency tests that are considered good measures in favor of another that was not. Out of 27 Chinese students enrolled this spring, 21 "could not speak English at the required competency level, (and) thus were sent back home," the report said.

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