A Numbers Game?

Edison State awarded degrees to students who didn't complete requirements, raising concerns that pressure to raise graduation rates could produce such incidents.
July 20, 2011

The cops in David Simon's "The Wire" have a phrase for it: "Juking the stats."

It's a common theme throughout the HBO series. Whether it's arrest rates or middle school test scores, when institutions place too much focus on a single statistic, individuals may cut corners to see improvement.

And that is what some people worry has been happening at Edison State College, in Florida, where an internal investigation found that about 75 percent of students in three particular programs were allowed to substitute elective credits for required courses -- with many of the substitutions approved in the week before graduation -- so that students could graduate on time and enroll in baccalaureate degree programs. Awarding degrees to students who don’t meet the set requirements would violate state law and accrediting standards, as well as raise questions about the value and integrity of the degrees.

In a news conference last week, Steve Atkins, vice president for academic affairs at Edison State, said the swaps were done mostly to increase matriculation to baccalaureate programs.

With policy makers in Washington and foundation officials placing so much emphasis on improving college completion and graduation rates, observers worry that what happened at Edison State College could become more common in the future if quality controls aren’t enacted. Particularly at sprawling, decentralized institutions facing resource cuts and heightened expectations, how does one safeguard against a lowering of standards while simultaneously trying to improve statistical outcomes? The question is especially relevant on the heels of the revelation of widespread and systematic cheating in Atlanta public schools by teachers and principals who, under pressure to show student improvement, altered test scores.

“When the pressure is on, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the path of least resistance that’s wide open to American higher education is a diminution of quality,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

But the situation at Edison might not be so simple, others say. For one, there is no evidence that Edison State officials allowed the course swaps in order to directly improve the college’s graduation rates or that they were under any pressure to do so. In recent months, the college has faced some scrutiny by local news outlets, which have raised questions about the president’s salary and whether the Board of Trustees’ oversight of the institution is sufficient. But little focus has been placed on the college’s graduation rate. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the college's graduation rate for students entering in fall 2003 was 25 percent, with a transfer rate of 14 percent.

"We don't feel like there was any internal pressure within the organization to graduate students, but that is part of our investigation," Atkins said in an e-mail statement. "At this point we're opening everything up to a third-party audit from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and we'll see what they find. I don't feel there was any intent to ever mislead the public in any way. I truly believe they were simply trying to help students."

The News-Press, the daily newspaper in Ft. Myers, helped bring the issue at Edison to light when reporters requested documents on course swaps. According to the report by Edison, officials discovered in December that students in three degree programs -- the A.S. in accounting technology, the A.S. in business management, and the A.S. in drafting and design -- had been allowed to substitute general education courses for core degree requirements. “Substitutions were often provided to enhance matriculation rates into a baccalaureate degree program,” the report states. The college changed the procedure to approve course swaps, requiring the signature of the dean of the department and the vice president for academic affairs.

Despite those changes, Atkins, when reviewing the spring 2011 graduates, found that 15 more students from the three programs in question were allowed to graduate without the authorized core courses, meaning that they were granted course changes after the adjustment. That discovery led to last week’s news conference and a decision announced there to place two administrators on leave.

Edison officials have not explained exactly why they allowed the course swaps, and are continuing their investigation, as well as bringing in AACRAO to conduct an audit. The document compiled during the college’s investigation of the incident notes that Dennete Foy, the associate dean of business and technical studies, who approved many of the course swaps, admitted that what she did was wrong but said she was “just helping students get into the baccalaureate degree programs.” Foy has been placed on paid leave, as has Bill Roshon, dean of business and technical studies. At a press conference last week, administrators said it would probably be about three weeks before the investigations were finished and the college had more answers.

David Paradice, associate dean for undergraduate education at Florida State University's business school, where Edison's report said numerous students enrolled upon receiving their degrees, said the school checks every transcript for a set of six prerequisite courses before granting admission. An Edison student whose elective ended up counting toward her degree still would not have credit for one of those prerequisites.

Course swaps were approved for about 2.5 percent of graduates since 2005, most of whom were confined to the three programs in question, Edison State officials said. That equates to roughly 75 percent of the 357 students who have graduated from those programs in the last five years. Despite that revelation, administrators insist that the integrity of the programs remains intact and that students’ degrees will not be rescinded.

Amy Slaton, a professor in the department of history and politics at Drexel University who studies the history of technical education, including community colleges, said that what happened at Edison raises interesting questions about the college but doesn’t necessarily point to increased pressure to improve its graduation rates.

“What would the mechanism be that would exert pressure on that system?” she said, noting that community college finances are not generally dependent on such metrics. “I don’t know through what channel the college would feel that pressure that graduation rates should be improved. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Thomas R. Bailey, director of the community college research center at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, said he thinks colleges currently feel under some pressure to increase their graduation rates, and he recognizes that such pressure can have positive or negative results. It's a good thing, he said, for colleges to examine areas where the college is weak and to invest in those. It's not good if a college focuses only on simple statistics, leading to questionable practices.

But one shouldn’t expect what happened at Edison to become the norm, he said, even if pressures increase. If colleges are really under pressure to increase outcomes and they seek some way to cut corners, he said, they won’t take such an obvious route. What would be more likely, he said, would be a lowering of standards, grade inflation, or a systematic effort to stop students who are likely to drop out from enrolling in the college in the first place.

Nassirian, with the registrars' association, said he has seen several examples of “corner-cutting” measures in recent years as budgets have gone down and enrollments at and expectations of community colleges have risen. For example, he said some colleges have upped the amount of credit a student gets for a course without appreciably changing the content, thereby decreasing time to degree.

He said that one common feature of situations similar to what happened at Edison, where colleges and universities award degrees to individuals who haven’t met requirements, is that registrars are not given the authority to disagree with other administrators. “In a properly organized campus setting, the registrar has to be the scorekeeper,” he said. “If he or she does not have significant enforcement authority, they don’t have direct link with faculty, and they don’t have faculty protections, when they’re a functionary of administration, in our experience, that’s how trouble arises.”

The report compiled by Edison's administration notes that there were times and situations where the registrar's office was uncomfortable telling academics or administrators "no."


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